California Gov. Gavin Newsom made political waves last week with his announcement that his state would be the first to publicly support a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution aimed at decreasing gun-related violence.
Newsom’s push comes amid an alarming rise in mass shootings across the country. According to a May analysis by the Associated Press and USA Today, the U.S. is on pace to average one mass shooting per week in 2023, with 97 people already killed in 19 separate incidents this year. Both numbers are records.
Some of the changes Newsom is pushing for with his longshot bid are policies Florida already has in place, while others are issues that have long been debated in the Sunshine State and across the country.
How the Parkland school shooting changed Florida’s gun laws
Florida’s 2018 school shooting that killed 17 people and injured 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland prompted a swift, bipartisan response from state lawmakers.
The Legislature voted to tighten restrictions on who could own a gun, institute a three-day waiting period to buy firearms and put red flag laws in place, which allow law enforcement officers to seize weapons from anyone deemed a threat to themselves or others.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Moskowitz, then a state representative for Parkland and a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, was one of the bill’s most fervent proponents and has since become an outspoken activist for tighter gun control. Shortly after the shooting, he led a group of lawmakers down to see the site in person. That visit, according to Moskowitz, was a crucial step in garnering support to pass the bill.
“To see backpacks piled up outside the school, to see homework scattered everywhere, blood in the hallways, blood outside the door where people dragged themselves out, to see bullets trying to go through the glass, I mean, this is a school,” Moskowitz said.
Despite being threatened with primary challenges by the National Rifle Association, no Republican who voted in favor of the bill lost their reelection bid.
“We know there’s a Second Amendment. We know there’s a history in this country. No one is coming for anybody’s guns,” Moskowitz said. “We just want to make kids safer in their communities.”
Gun purchasing age
Some states set age limits of 18 or 21 to purchase any type of firearm, while others have different requirements depending on whether the weapon is a handgun or a long gun like a shotgun or rifle. Newsom’s proposed amendment would make California’s uniform purchasing age of 21 the national standard.
Florida law already prohibits any person under 21 from purchasing either type of firearm from licensed dealers. Only law enforcement and corrections officers may purchase long guns at 18. There is no penalty for minors between 18 and 21 possessing firearms, including handguns and assault rifles.
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During the 2023 legislative session, the Florida House passed a bill, HB 1543, that would have reverted part of the law passed after Parkland by lowering the minimum age to buy rifles and other long guns to 18. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, died without a filing in the Senate.
There is no federal law regarding waiting periods between when someone buys and then can physically own a gun. Eleven states, including Florida and California, have implemented waiting periods that range from a few days to a couple weeks. Proponents say such measures provide a cooling-off period that could help deter people from buying a gun in the heat of anger or while having suicidal thoughts. Newsom advocates for a “reasonable” waiting period in his amendment but has not specified how long that would be.
Florida requires a three-day gap between the purchase and delivery of a firearm, not including weekends and federal holidays. Counties and cities may choose to enact local ordinances that extend the period to five days.
The waiting period does not apply to people who have a concealed carry permit; to people who have completed a minimum 16-hour hunter safety course; to law enforcement, correctional officers and service members; and to the “trade-in” of another firearm, according to state statute.
Federal law requires licensed sellers to conduct background checks on consumers before purchasing firearms. Checks are not currently required for non-licensed dealers, something that universal background checks, which Newsom proposes, hope to address.
States can either conduct checks themselves or rely on the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System to vet consumers before they purchase firearms. Florida opts for the former, using state databases in conjunction with federal records. A check is required for each transaction with a licensed dealer.
Gun dealers are required to examine a buyer’s photo ID and call the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to run a background check and provide a unique approval number that permits the sale. In 2018, Florida closed a loophole that allowed people to obtain firearms by default after three days, even if their check was still pending.
Any person who has been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor related to domestic violence, or who has had an adjudication of guilt suspended or withheld, is prohibited from owning or buying a gun. Those subject to court orders regarding a serious mental condition are similarly barred.
Polling shows overwhelming popular support for background checks, with between 80-90% of Americans in favor.
There are no federal laws restricting the sale or ownership of assault weapons — military-grade, semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines like an AR-15 — but California and nine other states have independently banned the purchase and possession of assault rifles. Some of those states offer exceptions for firearms lawfully owned before the law came into effect. Newsom proposes a nationwide ban.
Florida has no restrictions on the sale or ownership of assault weapons.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Safety Act initially contained a provision banning assault rifles. The measure was unpopular among the Republican majority, and was subsequently dropped in favor of raising the minimum age to 21 for people to buy such guns, Moskowitz said.
How likely are these changes?
Amending the U.S. Constitution requires an unprecedented level of interstate and bipartisan support, a highly unlikely proposition in the current fractured political environment.
There are two methods to amend the Constitution: Either Congress can propose an amendment by a two-thirds vote in both chambers, or two-thirds of state legislatures can call for a constitutional convention. In both cases, three-fourths of all states must then vote in favor of the amendment after it is proposed. Newsom is hoping to go the constitutional convention route, which has never happened.
But Newsom has said he thinks the issues he’s raising with the amendment resonate with Americans.
“I think people are at a breaking point in this country,” Newsom said in an interview with Politico last week. “And you may see this accelerate in a pretty profound and pronounced way.”