Injecting a dramatic proposal into the nation’s gun debate, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday called for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would embed gun restrictions popular in California and several other states nationwide but which critics argue would roll back a right to bear arms enshrined by the Second Amendment.
“The American people are sick of Congress’ inaction,” Newsom said through his personal Twitter account.
He proposed a 28th Amendment to the constitution — in a tweet accompanied by a campaign-style video — that would enact four “widely supported gun safety freedoms — while leaving the 2nd Amendment intact.”
He called for raising the minimum age to purchase any gun to 21, universal background checks on all gun transfers, a “reasonable” waiting period for gun buyers to pick up their weapon, and banning the civilian purchase of assault weapons — all part of California’s toughest-in-the nation gun laws. The proposal, he said, “will guarantee states, as well, the ability to enact common-sense gun safety laws.”
NEW: I’m proposing the 28th Amendment to the United States Constitution to help end our nation’s gun violence crisis.
The American people are sick of Congress’ inaction.
The 28th will enshrine 4 widely supported gun safety freedoms — while leaving the 2nd Amendment intact:
— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) June 8, 2023
Gun-rights supporters called it a gimmick by a politician with national ambitions and said it would weaken people’s right to protect themselves.
“Newsom’s latest publicity stunt once again shows that his unhinged contempt for the right to self-defense has no bounds,” the National Rifle Association said in a response Thursday, blasting the governor’s “embrace of policies that champion the criminal and penalize the law-abiding.”
But advocates for more restrictions on guns cheered.
“These are commonsense solutions that the vast majority of Americans support and it’s past time to make them the law of the land,” Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts said in a Twitter response to Newsom’s announcement.
Mass shootings across the country have sharpened the debate over guns, including one in May 2022 that killed 19 children and two teachers at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school and another in March that killed three children and three adults at a Nashville Christian school. California, despite its extensive gun restrictions, hasn’t been immune, with a January shooting at a Half Moon Bay farm that killed seven people and another shooting two days earlier that killed 11 people at a Monterey Park dance studio in the San Gabriel Valley.
Eugene Volokh, who teaches constitutional law at the University of California-Los Angeles, said proposed language allowing states to enact further “reasonable” restrictions “could certainly be framed broadly enough to eviscerate the Second Amendment.”
Volokh said a proposed amendment could potentially win support if “crafted to give both sides at least some part of what they want.” That could include “providing for easy interstate recognition of concealed-carry licenses or reaffirming the individual right to keep and bear arms in a way that would put it beyond the reach of Supreme Court reinterpretation.”
But the challenge for amending the Constitution — especially in such a divisive time — is enormous. Even a proposed amendment declaring equal rights for women has languished for decades.
An amendment may be proposed either by Congress with a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and Senate or by a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the state legislatures, according to the Office of the Federal Register. None of the 27 amendments to the Constitution has been proposed by constitutional convention.
A proposed amendment becomes part of the Constitution as soon as it is ratified by three-fourths of the states — 38 out of 50. The Constitution’s last amendment, ratified in 1992, requires an election of Congress before U.S. senators and representatives can receive raises they approved for themselves.
Larry Gerston, San Jose State University political science professor emeritus, said it would be quite difficult to persuade enough lawmakers and senators in rural states where hunting and gun rights are popular to go along with a proposal that would be assailed as an assault on their culture and constitutional rights.
“We’ve got a gun culture in many of these states, and they view this as an intrusion,” Gerston said. “There have been more than 11,000 attempts to amend the Constitution since 1789. Twenty-seven have succeeded, and 10 of those are the Bill of Rights.”
But Gerston added that the long-shot proposal gives Newsom another opportunity to raise his national profile ahead of an assumed future presidential bid. Though Newsom has said he supports and won’t challenge the re-election of President Joe Biden, a fellow Democrat, he often is mentioned as among the party’s top White House prospects, given his landslide victories in the nation’s most populous state.
Parts of Newsom’s proposed amendment already are law across much of the country.
Federal law prohibits licensed firearms dealers from selling a handgun to anyone under age 21. California and nine other states also prohibit rifle and shotgun sales to those under age 21, according to the Giffords Law Center. Several states also prohibit possession of a gun by those under 21.
Federal law requires background checks on firearm sales by federally licensed dealers, but California and 20 other states also extend that requirement to at least some gun sales or transfers by unlicensed private sellers, according to data compiled by Giffords.
The only waiting period on gun purchases in federal law is the time it takes licensed dealers to conduct a background check. But California and nine other states impose waiting periods on at least some gun sales — 10 days in the Golden State, Giffords says.
Congress banned sales of assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines from 1994 to 2004, when lawmakers let it expire amid dispute over its effectiveness. But California and nine other states maintain similar bans, Giffords says.
A national Monmouth University poll in April found varied support for gun rights, with 51% saying the right to bear arms is important but should have restrictions and 81% supporting universal background checks. But just 46% support banning assault weapons, with 49% opposed.
Gun supporters say “assault weapons” — semi-automatic rifles with military-stylings such as pistol grips that fire one bullet per trigger pull — are functionally the same as rifles and pistols commonly sold to hunters and target shooters. Weapons carried by soldiers are largely off limits to civilians and can fire continuously at a higher rate with one trigger pull.