Bill Whalen

There’s a difference between weapons of war and personal protection. Conservatives need to figure it out.

Alessandra Mondolfi holds a sign against AR-15 weapons during a protest at the Broward County federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Feb. 17.
Alessandra Mondolfi holds a sign against AR-15 weapons during a protest at the Broward County federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Feb. 17. AP Photo

When Confederate soldiers surrendered at Appomattox, they voluntarily handed over their muskets – tens of thousands of them. But they were allowed to keep their side arms.

Why? Because Northern generals considered the former to be instruments of war and the latter personal property.

It’s a distinction that the right should embrace as it seeks a more sensible stance in the aftermath of the mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Some guns are for mayhem; others for recreation or protection. It’s time to stop confusing those purposes.

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Bill Whalen

Last week, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked for her thoughts post-Parkland. She’s no fan of arming teachers, and she’s open to a dialogue on updating a constitutional protection written nearly 230 years ago.


“I think it’s time for us to have a conversation about what the right to bear arms means in the modern world," Rice told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. "I don’t understand why civilians need to have access to military weapons."

In California, a GOP statewide candidate could stick to their guns (pun intended) and get elected. But it would require the votes of practically every Second Amendment proponent, assuming they’re all registered and willing to cast a ballot. There are 6 million gun-owners in California; Jerry Brown was elected governor eight years ago with 5.4 million votes.

Obviously, that’s not going to happen.

A more practical approach is what worked for Republican Pete Wilson in the 1980s and 1990s. He won four Senate and gubernatorial contests as a proponent of the Brady Bill’s waiting period and assault weapon bans, all the while drawing a distinction between long guns for hunting and personal guns for protection.

Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, the embodiment of cinematic gun violence (a website that tracks on-screen kills claims he is Hollywood’s all-time “deadliest actor”), strived for a balancing act. He called himself “a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, but also wanted to close gun show loopholes.

The state already is light years ahead of Congress (and Florida) on gun control. There’s a statewide ban on the sale of assault rifles. A 2016 law prohibits the sale of “bullet-buttoned” semiautomatic rifles with ammunition magazines that can be quickly replaced.

So what should California conservatives do on guns?

First, they should look to the courts.

Gun-rights advocates have challenged a state law requiring Californians who own high-capacity magazines (more than 10 rounds of ammo) to get rid of them or face criminal penalties. The right should denounce this challenge; target practice and a 25-shot weapon aren’t synonymous.

Second, conservatives should look to a most unlikely partner -- a San Francisco Democrat.

Assemblyman Phil Ting is reintroducing legislation that would expand California’s gun violence restraining order system. The bill would add employers, co-workers, high school and college staff, and mental health workers to those who can seek the orders. Republicans in the Legislature should join a bipartisan solution that the governor could sign.

The third option would be to do nothing, but that ignores shifting political ground.

In 2016, voters in California, Nevada and Washington approved gun-control ballot measures. Post-Parkland, the Trump White House has signaled that it’s for improving the federal background system and banning bump-stocks.

Over the past five years, there have been more than 1,600 shootings with four or more casualties in the U.S., with California accounting for about 10 percent of them. The math is dizzying –as are the excuses for not giving ground and helping to stem the violence.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at