LOS ANGELES – Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed Thursday amending the U.S. Constitution to harden federal gun laws amid a surge of mass killings across the nation, his latest step onto the national stage amid the unfolding 2024 White House campaign.
With the U.S. bitterly divided over gun rights and the 2nd Amendment, the chances of recasting the Constitution to enshrine universal background checks, a waiting period to buy firearms and other restrictions into law appeared remote. A new amendment has not been added since 1992.
Newsom has denied any interest in a presidential run and is supporting President Joe Biden's reelection bid. But his proposal marked his latest maneuver in what has taken on the look of a shadow campaign as he injects himself into the national discussion on guns, abortion, immigration and other contentious issues.
He’s been in a running dispute with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, and traveled to Florida in April to criticize what he said are GOP efforts to tread on LGBTQ+ rights, weaken civil and voting rights, ban abortion and marginalize people of color. They've recently clashed after Florida picked up asylum-seekers on the Texas border and took them by private jet to California — Newsom called DeSantis a “small, pathetic man.”
Newsom — positioning himself as a liberal counterweight to national Republicans — has argued that Democrats have been too passive in the country's culture wars and warned that the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority could unravel decades of court rulings that could redefine what it means to live in America.
Indeed, Newsom told NBC’s “The Today Show” in an interview that his proposal was crafted in response to federal courts rolling back several gun safety laws. In 2022, for example, the Supreme Court rejected a century-old New York law that made it difficult to obtain a license to carry a concealed handgun.
“The gun lobby says we can’t stop the carnage America now experiences every day without violating the 2nd Amendment — that thoughts and prayers are the best we can do ... that’s a lie,” Newsom said in a statement. “In this country, we do have the power to change things. That power is written into the Constitution, and today we’re using it to end America’s gun violence crisis.”
During a walkover re-election last year in the heavily Democratic state and into 2023, Newsom has appeared eager to test the traditional role of a governor. He's been seeking out the national spotlight, formed a political action committee with surplus campaign money to support Democratic candidates in Republican-led states and traveled the country to criticize GOP policies and promote California as a haven for what he calls fundamental rights, including same-sex marriage, freedom of speech and abortion.
During his re-election campaign, he spent money on ads in Florida and Texas to poke at the policies of two of his political foils, DeSantis and Gov. Greg Abbott.
Speaking in Austin, Texas, in September, he warned that Democrats needed a more aggressive strategy with critical rights on the line, saying of Republicans, “These guys are ruthless on the other side.”
Veteran Democratic consultant Roger Salazar said Newsom was “going on offense” in hopes of influencing federal policies that impact California and the nation. But it also has the benefit of elevating his national profile and potentially increasing his fundraising clout, with speculation about his political ambitions.
Should he decide to seek national office in the future, "this is a great way to set himself up for it," Salazar said. “All these activities and actions are ones he can put in his political piggy bank, so to speak, and use them down the road.”
“Five years is not that long,” he added, referring to the 2028 presidential campaign.
Newsom's proposed 28th Amendment has four prongs: It would institute what he called a “reasonable” waiting period for all gun purchases, ban so-called assault rifles throughout the country, require universal background checks and raise the minimum age to buy a firearm to 21.
Amending the Constitution requires support from two-thirds of the members of both chambers of Congress, or for 33 states to support the effort and call for holding a constitutional convention. A proposed amendment then must be ratified by three-fourths of state Legislatures or ratifying conventions.
As of early May, the U.S. was on a record pace for mass killings, according to a database maintained by The Associated Press and USA Today in a partnership with Northeastern University. The database counts killings involving four or more fatalities, not including the perpetrator, the same standard as the FBI, and tracks a number of variables for each.
There have been 26 mass killing incidents so far this year, the most in any year so far during the period for which data has been compiled. Those incidents left 131 people dead.
“There’s not a parent out there, not one parent, you included, that doesn’t think about these things when you send your kids to school,” Newsom told NBC.
Newsom said he will work with supporters, elected and civic leaders and diverse coalitions to push for resolutions on the amendment to be passed in other state legislatures. He said he believes he can be successful because a majority of Americans say they want stricter gun laws.
Newsom said he will run his efforts through his new political committee, Campaign for Democracy. He ended his last campaign with more than $16 million left in his political account, some of which will be spent on his new effort.
Associated Press writer Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this report.