Gavin Newsom wants to change the US constitution to stop gun violence – will he succeed?

<span>Gavin Newsom speaks in the aftermath of a shooting in Half Moon Bay, California, on 24 January 2023.</span><span>Photograph: Samantha Laurey/AFP via Getty Images</span>
Gavin Newsom speaks in the aftermath of a shooting in Half Moon Bay, California, on 24 January 2023.Photograph: Samantha Laurey/AFP via Getty Images

As US courts roll back gun safety legislation and states expand gun rights, Gavin Newsom is pursuing an unprecedented long-shot effort to curb gun violence: a new constitutional amendment.

The deeply entrenched national gun culture and political divisions in the US has been a roadblock to establishing federal and state policies that would address the epidemic of gun violence in the US, which left nearly 43,000 people dead in 2023.

One way around this perennial stalemate is to pass an amendment. Last year, the California governor announced his plan to pass a 28th amendment aimed at enshrining safety measures that are supported by most Americans but haven’t been enacted by Congress and some Republican-led states.

The proposed amendment includes raising the federal age to buy a gun from 18 to 21, banning so-called assault weapons and mandating universal background checks and a waiting period between the purchase of a gun and its delivery.

Newsom has long touted his strong record on guns, including restricting ammunition and putting new taxes on gun purchases, which have earned him praise from violence prevention groups and the ire of gun rights organizations.

Related: What are red flag laws, and how do they work?

Since introducing the plan, Newsom’s political action committee, Campaign for democracy, has peppered social media with ads asking people across the country to join his effort. He also aims to amass at least 10,000 volunteers nationwide who can push their state lawmakers to pass resolutions to call for a constitutional convention.

But the long-shot nature of his proposal has been criticized by those on the left and right as merely an attempt to bolster his credentials ahead of a future presidential run. Even national violence prevention organizations that are usually in lockstep with the governor have been mum on the topic.

There probably won’t be any movement towards the amendment until 2025. Here’s what we know about the status of the effort and the likelihood of it becoming a reality.

Why is Newsom calling for a new amendment?

Newsom’s announcement frames the strategy as a way to canonize simple gun protections in a way that doesn’t conflict with the second amendment and that can’t be easily undone by district courts or undermined by lawmakers.

In 2022, the supreme court’s Bruen decision voided many state restrictions on carrying firearms in public and established a new standard for gun regulations that requires laws to be “consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation”, according to Justice Clarence Thomas’ majority opinion.

The decision opened up a flood of challenges to state gun policies on the grounds that they violate the constitution. This includes laws that Newsom himself has signed, like one from 2022 that was modelled after a controversial Texas abortion measure that allows people to sue the manufacturers of illegal guns, and another that banned anyone, even those with a concealed carry permit, from carrying firearms in public spaces like parks and churches.

Newsom says a new amendment is necessary to protect gun laws from an uncertain future.

“Governor Newsom isn’t sitting idly by while rightwing judges dismantle our gun safety laws,” said Nathan Click, a spokesperson for Newsom’s political action committee 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.”

Newsom’s violence prevention legislation – like AB 28, which provided funding for violence prevention groups – usually garners huge support from national violence prevention groups such as March for Our Lives and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which gave California an A rating on their annual gun law scorecard. But so far, neither of these groups have publicly backed the governor.

In a statement to the Guardian, March for Our Lives, founded after the mass school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, said that they welcome bold proposals to address gun violence and “look forward to continuing to discuss these ideas and actions with Governor Newsom”.

“In 2023, Congress failed to pass any piece of gun safety legislation and just this past year, we’ve seen state legislatures threaten progress across the country by pushing dangerous legislation, like arming teachers, which will only cost more lives. In the face of this inaction and ignorance, more ideas and solutions to prevent this epidemic must be proposed,” the statement says.

But the quietness from high-profile groups on Newsom’s long-shot approach is making others see this effort as an obvious ploy to boost his presidential hopes.

Passage would require 33 other states to join California in calling for a constitutional convention, one of the vehicles to pass an amendment. After that, a total of 38 states must approve the amendment.

“This is obviously a campaign move by Newsom. It’s about burnishing his credentials with the base,” said Kostas Moros, a second amendment attorney who has represented the California Rifle and Pistol association in litigation, including against Newsom. “I don’t think this has any serious chance of passing or being picked up by other states.”

Newsom has acknowledged that the constitutional convention route is a difficult and potentially years long process, but argued that Republican lawmakers will have no choice but to support it once their constituents will apply pressure.

“This is an existential crisis that we are experiencing every single day,” Newsom said during a Today Show interview announcing the amendment. “[The constitutional convention is] possible because their constituency demands it.”

Where does it stand today?

A California resolution calling for a constitutional convention was introduced by state assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer and state senator Aisha Wahab in June 2023 and passed through the California legislature in September, making the state the first to do so. Now, Newsom is working to lock up support from 33 other states that will need to pass similar resolutions in order to trigger a convention.

Newsom and his Pac are trying to build up a team of volunteers across the country to push state legislators to introduce their own bills in the 2025 legislative session. Click, Newsom’s Pac’s spokesperson, said that the group has so far trained 1,500 volunteers and plans to have 10,000 trained by early 2025.

How likely is he to succeed?

Newsom is aiming to do something unprecedented. None of the US constitution’s 27 amendments have ever been adopted via constitutional convention, as Newsom is proposing. (They’ve all been passed by a two-thirds vote in Congress and full ratification by the states.) The most recent amendment, which bans members of Congress from increasing their pay during legislative sessions, was passed more than 30 years ago.

It also seems highly unlikely that 33 other states will pass such a resolution to call for a convention. Joe Biden only won 25 states and Washington DC in the 2020 election, and more than half of states allow permitless carry- a sign that they will be unlikely to support Newsom’s gun safety measures.

Even states with strict gun restrictions, such as New York, Illinois and Michigan, have had legislative sessions this year without discussing calling for a constitutional convention.

While the passage of the 2022 Bipartisan Safer Communities act, the most sweeping gun policy to pass through congress in 30 years, toughened background checks and provided states with money to implement red flag laws and indicated that there is potential for movement on gun policy, the odds appear stacked against the governor.

Still, Newsom argued that the extreme gridlock in Congress necessitates this type of action. When asked last year if he believes the 28th amendment would become a reality, Newsom said: “I hope so – if you don’t start, it’ll never happen.”