In summary

The answer to America’s firearm injury epidemic must start with rewriting the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. A nationwide movement to begin that debate by calling a constitutional convention could start with California.

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By John Maa, Special to CalMatters

John Maa, a surgeon, practices medicine in Marin County at MarinHealth Medical Center, and was the 2018 resident of the San Francisco Marin Medical Society.

I served in the U.S. Army as an officer during Operation Desert Storm, and understand the importance of firearms in the defense of our nation. I am also a surgeon who has treated civilian gunshot victims for more than two decades. I cannot reconcile the senseless injuries I see with what is interpreted as a constitutional right to maintain “a militia” as laid out in the Second Amendment. 

The answer to America’s firearm injury epidemic must start with rewriting the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. A nationwide movement to begin that debate by calling a constitutional convention could start with California.

Such a revision is nothing new: Americans have amended the Constitution 27 times, most recently in 1992. The founders wrote that regular revision was necessary: “Let us provide in our Constitution for its revision … every 19 or 20 years so … that it may be handed on, with periodical repairs, from generation to generation,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. “If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”

James Madison, just one year after the Constitution was adopted, introduced 17 amendments. 

What’s pressing now is the need to amend the Second Amendment. The nation’s founders never could have envisioned internet firearm sales, ghost guns and the evolution of muskets and pistols into lethal assault rifles that pervade our nation more than 200 years later.

The Second Amendment states, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Constitutional scholars have long wrangled over comma placement in the wording of the Second Amendment. They question whether the right to bear arms is linked to the maintenance of a well-regulated militia. A 28th Amendment could define what a militia means today, and clarify what “well-regulated” should signify. 

Such revision would be challenging: Amending the Constitution requires either a convention requested by two-thirds of the state legislatures, or an amendment approved by two-thirds of both houses of Congress. The proposal must then be ratified by three-fourths of the states. 

The California Legislature could request that Congress convene a constitutional convention to draft a 28th Amendment to amend the Second Amendment and persuade other states to request the same.

Alternatively, Californians could persuade one of their two U.S. senators or one of their 52 congressional representatives to draft a constitutional amendment that then requires congressional approval.

The final step for either strategy is ratification by the states, which could take a decade. One has to start somewhere.

The first strategy is being championed by conservatives through the Constitutional Convention movement, which 19 Republican-led state legislatures have endorsed. 

California could join as the first blue legislature. If 14 more states joined, a convention would be convened, and the scope of its discussions could be expanded beyond firearm safety to include reproductive rights and same-sex marriage. California, which has amended its own Constitution more than 500 times, could lead this effort.

Republicans control 30 state legislatures, Democrats control 17 and 3 are split. Any effort to amend the Constitution would require states led by Democrats to both join the initial call for a convention, and to ratify the proposed changes afterward.

For the second strategy, firearm safety champions Reps. Eric Swalwell, D-Castro Valley, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a San Francisco Democrat, could introduce a bill. The challenge, of course, is securing the 290 House votes and 67 Senate votes, which will depend on the outcome of the November midterm elections and unity in the Democratic Party base. To secure the needed Republican votes, focusing efforts on universal background checks for gun sales, which has nearly 90% support by Americans of both parties, potentially could bear fruit.

The final step with either approach is to secure approval of 38 states.

The 19th Amendment, which grants women the right to vote, was ratified in the two years following the Spanish flu pandemic. Initiating an amendment process as we overcome the COVID-19 pandemic might be an ideal way to celebrate our nation’s 250th birthday in 2026.


John Maa previously has written about the vaping epidemic and the tobacco industry.


Ben Derish-Luby, who holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Cornell University, contributed to this commentary. He is a former policy researcher at Princeton University.

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