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Why Gavin Newsom’s gun control constitutional amendment hasn’t gone beyond California

Flanked by lawmakers and gun safety advocates, Gov. Gavin Newsom signs new gun legislation into law in Sacramento on Sept. 26, 2023.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
/
CalMatters
Flanked by lawmakers and gun safety advocates, Gov. Gavin Newsom signs new gun legislation into law in Sacramento on Sept. 26, 2023.

One year after Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed changing the U.S. Constitution to place new restrictions on gun ownership, no other states have joined his campaign for a 28th amendment.

Even as Newsom continues to tout the effort — largely through social media advertisements that encourage people to sign a “petition” and donate to his political action committee — it appears to have gained little traction outside of California. Legislative leaders in several other large states controlled by Democrats told CalMatters that calling for a constitutional convention to adopt the amendment has not come up for discussion among their caucuses.

Newsom spokesperson Nathan Click said the governor’s team focused this past year on laying the groundwork for the campaign, which they plan to reinvigorate in 2025, when most states will begin new legislative sessions. That has primarily involved getting the public invested through the online petition, which is effectively a way to expand the political action committee’s mailing list, and by training volunteers.

“We’re under no illusions of how hard it is to pass a constitutional amendment, so that’s why we’ve focused on building this grassroots army to help these legislators,” Click said. “It’s not just a bill introduction. It’s a bill introduction, and people on the ground who are willing to fight.”

But the lack of progress so far raises questions about whether Newsom is seriously pursuing the constitutional amendment, which he has acknowledged faces overwhelming hurdles to becoming law, or whether it’s merely savvy political messaging.

As California’s extensive gun control framework is increasingly dismantled in the courts following a key ruling two years ago, critics say the proposed amendment is Newsom’s attempt to refashion a losing issue into something supporters can rally behind while also keeping him on the national stage in case he runs for president one day.

“They’ve come out of the closet. They’ve showed their true intent. They want to eradicate the 2nd Amendment, period,” said Alan Gottlieb, founder and executive vice president of the Second Amendment Foundation, which has repeatedly sued to overturn gun restrictions in California. “He’s staking out this territory for Democratic primaries for running for the White House in the future. He’s trying to take that mantle so that other candidates can’t claim to be the most anti-gun candidate.”

Putting gun control back ‘on the map’

California’s firearms laws are among the most stringent in the country and they’ve only gotten stricter under Newsom, a longtime champion of gun control policies who has signed dozens of bills regulating the sale, ownership and manufacturing of weapons since taking office in 2019.

But the Bruen decision by the Supreme Court in 2022, which overturned New York’s tough standard for who could carry a concealed gun in public and established a new historical basis for reviewing firearms laws, upended that entire system.

Following a barrage of litigation from gun rights groups, judges in the past two years have ruled unconstitutional California laws that require safety features on handguns sold in the state, limit the number of bullets in magazines, ban assault weapons, prohibit guns in certain sensitive places, allow lawsuits against manufacturers of “abnormally dangerous” guns and prohibit buying more than one gun every 30 days. Most of those decisions, some of which reversed previous rulings upholding the same laws, are being appealed by the state.

So on June 8, 2023, Newsom announced a plan to work around the courts. His idea was to get the states to call a convention to add to the U.S. Constitution four firearms restrictions that are broadly popular in public polling: universal background checks for gun purchases, raising the federal minimum age for all buyers to 21, requiring an unspecified minimum waiting period between purchasing and taking possession of a gun, and banning the sale of assault weapons.

“Governor Newsom isn’t sitting idly by while rightwing judges dismantle our gun safety laws,” Click said in a statement. “He’s taking aggressive actions — defending our state’s first-in-class gun safety laws from judicial attacks while simultaneously fighting to pass a constitutional amendment to enshrine gun safety nationwide.”

It’s a route that might be even more challenging than getting a bill through Congress these days. Two-thirds of state legislatures — 34 out of 50 — must agree to convene the constitutional convention and then whatever text is proposed must be ratified by at least three-fourths of states, or 38, either through legislation or conventions. The last successful constitutional amendment was decades ago.

Despite concerns even from some Democratic allies of the governor that calling a constitutional convention could open the door for Republican-led states to propose amendments with unrelated conservative priorities, the California Legislature dutifully got the ball rolling with a resolution at the end of session last year.

“This was supposed to put it on the map and keep it on the map,” said Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat who shepherded the resolution through the Assembly.

Democratic states not rushing to join California

Yet no other states have followed suit in the year since, including 19 where Democrats control both houses of the legislature.

Click noted that many of those states have part-time legislatures that will not reconvene until next year, after this November’s election. He said Newsom’s team has been working with legislators in other states to introduce resolutions in 2025, though he declined to provide any specifics.

“Given the nature, we’re not trying to tip off the opposition,” he said.

New York Lieutenant Gov. Antonio Delgado presides over the State Senate during a special legislative session to debate new concealed-carry gun permits at the New York State Capitol in Albany, New York on June 30, 2022.
Mike Segar
/
Reuters
New York Lieutenant Gov. Antonio Delgado presides over the State Senate during a special legislative session to debate new concealed-carry gun permits at the New York State Capitol in Albany, New York on June 30, 2022.

Democratic-controlled states such as New York, Illinois, Michigan, Massachusetts and Hawaii did have sessions this year, however, without calling for a constitutional convention on gun control.

CalMatters contacted the offices of legislative leaders in those five states to ask whether their caucuses had considered Newsom’s plan. Many did not respond to numerous inquiries, but representatives for New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, Illinois House Speaker Emanuel Chris Welch and Michigan House Speaker Joe Tate said it had not come up for discussion and they were not aware of any outreach from Newsom’s team.

Recent developments in New York and Pennsylvania also illustrate the political challenges of pursuing the constitutional convention strategy — from both the left, where there is a longstanding distrust of the system, and the right, where most gun control policies are anathema to Republicans.

In March, the New York Legislature actually voted to rescind several historic resolutions calling for constitutional conventions, going back as far as 1789, reflecting fears from progressive activists that such a process could be used by conservatives to undermine democratic rights. Dozens of Republican-led states have previously passed resolutions seeking a constitutional convention to adopt a balanced budget amendment.

In Pennsylvania, the only state with divided partisan control of its legislature, a spokesperson for Democratic House Speaker Joanna McClinton said their caucus has prioritized gun safety legislation.

“Unfortunately, our efforts have been blocked by the Republican-led state Senate, where two bipartisan gun safety bills have been stalled for over a year,” Nicole Reigelman wrote in an email, “so any consideration of a constitutional convention here would likely face a similar opposition from the Senate Republican majority.”

Newsom continues to advertise his plan

National gun control advocacy groups have not jumped in to boost Newsom’s effort and appear to be maintaining their distance from the idea.

Despite often cheering the governor’s support for new gun control legislation and attending his signing ceremonies, none was quoted in a press release touting praise for the proposal, published by his office days after the campaign launched last year. Everytown for Gun Safety and Brady: United Against Gun Violence declined or did not respond to interview requests about how it fits into their strategy.

Newsom has nevertheless continued to encourage his followers to get involved with the campaign.

“If Congress and the courts will not take action to help make our communities safer from gun violence, then we — the people — must do it ourselves,” he said in one recent social media advertisement directing people to sign his petition. “It’s a small gesture that can have a big impact when lots and lots of us do it together.”

More than a million people have signed up in the past year, Click said, and the campaign has trained more than 1,500 of them on how they can help in their states. They plan to train 10,000 volunteers by early 2025 when resolution introductions begin.

Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation said Newsom’s proposal has accomplished more for opponents, who have used its a fundraising tool to mobilize gun owners, than it has for gun safety.

He was unsurprised that the call for a constitutional convention has not gained traction outside of California, especially in an election year, arguing that gun control is not as popular as other Democratic priorities such as abortion rights, particularly in rural areas and battleground states.

“I don’t think the gun control issue plays well for Democrats, but they just can’t let go of it,” he said. “They’re like a dog with a bone in their mouth.”