The following editorial appeared Thursday in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Even after the horrific slayings of schoolchildren in Connecticut in December, it was probably inevitable that an effort to ban military-style assault weapons would come to naught.
There was widespread skepticism that the ban would do much good, especially since so many of these guns already are on the streets and in homes. There was no Republican support, and even red-state Democrats were reluctant to back the measure.
We still think there is value in sending a message that assault weapons and extended magazines are dangerous and unnecessary, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has to count votes and made a wise decision this week to focus on the possible.
Now his goal is to pass bipartisan legislation to make gun trafficking a federal crime, boost funding for school security and toughen the background-check program. We'd also like to see a ban on the sale of ammunition on the Internet.
The assault weapons ban was introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; it would have barred about 160 specific semiautomatic weapons and rifles and assorted military-style parts and would have limited the size of ammunition magazines to 10 rounds. A limit on magazines still strikes us as a reasonable concession that could limit the ability of a killer intent on mayhem. Still, there isn't much support for such a ban.
During a Senate hearing last week, Feinstein described how she discovered the body of gay activist Harvey Milk 35 years ago; he was a colleague of hers at the time on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She talked of looking for a pulse and "putting my fingers in a bullet hole."
After it became clear the assault weapons ban would fail, she asked: "How many assault weapons do you need circulating? To have these mass killings is such a blight on everything that America stands for."
She's right. But the votes have to be there. And right now, there are not the votes to enact an assault weapons ban.
There is support, though, for tougher background checks. A new Marquette University Law School poll of 1,060 registered voters statewide found that 81 percent favor background checks for sales at guns shows or in private gun sales. Nationally, a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that nine in 10 Americans favor toughening background checks.
Given the politics, that's the direction Congress should go.