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Gavin Newsom Is Ready to Fight
The California governor's proposal of a constitutional amendment on guns could help Democrats think bigger about politics—and their electoral pitch.
Call it a gimmick, a ploy, a fantasy, a grift, or a bald-faced grab for the spotlight—and lots of people have—but I come to celebrate California Governor Gavin Newsom for proposing a constitutional amendment to regulate guns.
The proposed 28th Amendment wouldn’t repeal the Second Amendment, but would add four safeguards supported by majorities of registered voters, in some cases massive majorities: mandatory universal background checks, a minimum purchase age of 21, a reasonable waiting period, and a ban on civilian purchases of assault weapons. Studies suggest such national standards would reduce suicides, homicides, and gun trafficking. Congress, states, and localities could add more restrictions under the amendment if they wanted.
Most constitutional amendment gambits are folly. But Newsom’s proposal is serious, and so is he.
You may agree with Newsom’s proposal, or you may disagree. Discussing ideas and politics honestly and in good faith is what counts.
Yes, it’s obvious the California governor is building up his national organization and email list. Yes, I know (as does he) that he should not have attended an outdoor gathering at the upscale French Laundry restaurant when he was advising Californians to stay home for the holidays during a pandemic spike. Yes, passing any constitutional amendment the traditional way could take decades, maybe even a couple of centuries. The Newsom route, convening at least 33 states at a constitutional convention “limited to this subject,” led by California, would also take a while, given that Democrats have full control in only 17 states.
And yet: Amid a tide of ever-more permissive gun laws accompanied by relentless gun violence and record mass shootings, Newsom’s flaws, motives, timeline or ultimate prospects of success are less important than what he has already accomplished: He and his 28th Amendment are cutting through the noise and getting attention, from NBC’s TODAY Show to a Sean Hannity interview on Fox News. The proposal can also be seen more broadly as a template for boldness and playing a strategic long game. He framed it to Hannity in terms a Fox News audience might appreciate: “I aspire on gun policy to be Ronald Reagan, who said AK-47s should not be used for defense and [that] he believe[d] in background checks.”
Newsom definitely has his critics. Edwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley’s law school, told the Los Angeles Times that “it’s dangerous to be opening the door to giving credence to the idea of a constitutional convention”—something conservatives have long promoted for their own purposes. Policy writer Matthew Yglesias, a self-described pragmatist and a fellow at the moderate Niskanen Center, says Newsom’s proposal is a “dumb and counterproductive” grift and adds, “don’t tolerate scammers.”
California columnist Joe Mathews, however, calls the amendment “the most important political idea in the country today . . . It’s hard to think of a policy this country needs more than constitutional controls on firearms.” I’m closer to that view, given the continuing carnage, the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision rolling back state regulations in California and elsewhere, and what Newsom calls “the echo chamber of despair out there today.”
It might take 50 years of turnover in state legislatures, the Supreme Court, and/or Congress to accomplish the four popular gun safety steps in Newsom’s amendment. That would be tragic—but it would be even more tragic not to try, especially given what persistent conservatives have managed to achieve in the far more controversial area of abortion.
Newsom isn’t just showing Democrats how to think big and long-term. He fights nicely but hard, with facts. In the Hannity appearance, he acknowledged the “disgrace” of homelessness in his state and explained how he is trying to fix it. He mainly used his Fox News opportunity to brag about blue-state policy successes and attack red states on economics, immigration, censorship, and abortion. Again, all with facts.
Newsom has been sparring with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for months. “Join us in California, where we still believe in freedom,” he said in a TV ad in Florida last summer; DeSantis reciprocated this week with a video of himself on a San Francisco street, complete with graffiti and garbage. Newsom also said this month he’d absolutely accept Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves’s invitation to debate gun violence. “You can’t be serious,” he said, noting that Mississippi has the highest gun violence death rate in the nation. “Serious as a heart attack,” Reeves responded. “I know you would prefer the French Laundry . . . but let’s do the debate at my deer camp instead.”
On Twitter, marketing analyst Ed Edelson called the Hannity-Newsom session a communications master class and a “must-watch for all leaders—no matter what field you’re in or what party you belong to.” In the Hill, former Democratic congressional aide Brent Budowsky said Newsom made an inspirational, “enthusiastic, fact-based case for progressivism, California, President Biden and the values he forcefully champions.”
Former Politico and Roll Call reporter Meredith Shiner inadvertently captured the context for Newsom’s rave reviews. “I wish Democrats fought as hard for anything as my recently-potty-trained toddler fights against a poop,” she said in a recent tweet. “There would be no Senate filibuster and 17 justices on the Supreme Court.”
Newsom is proactive, no question—and why not? He was easily reelected last year to lead a state with 39 million people and the fifth-largest economy in the world—heading toward fourth-largest, he told Hannity. He started a Campaign for Democracy political action committee “to expose and fight rising authoritarianism” and “go on offense in red states as well as blue states.” A page called “Threats” on the PAC’s website features DeSantis, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Speculation about Newsom awaiting his 2024 moment has quieted since he set up a committee that augments President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign themes. The pair were nearly inseparable this week on Biden’s visit to California, and Newsom told Hannity that he would not consider running in 2024. When Hannity asked bluntly if Biden was “up to the job of being president” and “cognitively strong enough to be president,” Newsom delivered a reality check to Fox News viewers constantly fed a “senile Biden” trope. Citing Biden’s record of results and his own frequent conversations with the president, Newsom said, “I don’t think he’s capable, I know he’s capable.”
Speaking of capable: There will be plenty more digs about the French Laundry and the seeming futility of trying to add an amendment to the Constitution. But gun safety is a life-and-death issue, and America is a tragic outlier. Newsom has chosen a righteous cause, and he has the skills to keep it top of mind for as long as it takes.