Can Newsom Spark Ban on Assault Weapons?

by on June 12, 2023

Constitutional Amendment Offers Boost

California Governor Gavin Newsom announced last week that he would lead an effort to pass a 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning the purchase of assault weapons. His timing was unfortunate– Donald Trump’s indictment dominated the day’s media –but Newsom’s action may ultimately have a greater national impact be greater if this new strategy to stop mass shootings gathers steam.

Here’s my take.

A Bold and Smart Strategy

I see a lot of upside and no downside to Newsom’s strategy.

People feel hopeless about gun violence. School shootings have not had a positive political impact. Nor have regular mass murders. If anything, bad court rulings and pro-gun political power in red states are worsening the crisis.

Into that void Newsom offers a viable roadmap to finally get assault weapons off our streets.

Some question its viability. After all, it takes 34 states to approve a constitutional amendment. This seems impossible. So why expend resources on a campaign that can’t win?

We heard a similar response when Newsom temporarily legalized marriage equality. And when California voters passed Prop 8 reversing legislative approval of marriage equality. Both events seemed to cast major doubt on a change that soon happened.

I see a systemic strategy at play here.

Reframing State/National Politics

Doesn’t it help progressive state and national candidates to be identified with assault weapon bans? Wouldn’t the support for Measure 28 promote an issue where swing voters choose the progressive side?

Suburban moms? They don’t want assault weapons. Young people don’t either. It seems most of the  allegedly up for grab constituencies are on Newsom’s side of this debate.

We know from the past decades that opposition to assault weapons does not automatically transfer into support for candidates who agree (or opposition to those who do not).  Yet a constitutional ban makes the issue far more high profile.

I can’t see a downside for Democrats here.

I know how a November 1982 gun control ballot measure handed Republican George Deukmejian the California Governor’s race over Democrat Tom Bradley. Infrequent rural voters came out in droves to oppose the initiative and also backed Deukmenjian.

But a lot has since changed.

This was the era before nearly weekly mass shootings. Before ongoing school shootings. And before assault weapons became the dominant method of conducting mass murders.

The push for a constitutional amendment weakens a common argument from NRA backers: that ballot measures that seem innocent on gun regulations instead represent a “camel under the tent” strategy. In other words, every reform must be defeated in order to stop activists for demanding more.

The 28th amendment strategy changes this by defining the outer limits. Some advocates will say that’s a mistake. But it appears to be the best national strategy.

I recall when state legislators were pressured over support for the Equal Rights Amendment. It didn’t ultimately pass but it raised the profile of the equality issue.

Newsom’s drive for a constitutional amendment can do the same. Let’s assume that the 25 states that backed Biden in the 2020 election can all be persuaded to pass Amendment 28. Who knows what major grassroots campaigns could do in the remaining roughly ten states necessary for the amendment to pass.

I look forward to finding out.

The alternative is accepting an unacceptable status quo.

It’s better to think big. Let’s start with California and see where it goes.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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