updated 1/19/2011 1:35:44 PM ET 2011-01-19T18:35:44

Guests: Doug Heye, Gail Collins, James Cavanaugh

           

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST:  Good evening.  And thanks for joining us tonight for what has been an unexpectedly busy Friday in the world of news.

This time, two years ago, we on this show did the single most catastrophically failed segment we have ever done on this show.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

           

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Waiting to make his move around the first turn, it‘s Michael Steele.  Michael Steele, stride for stride with favorite Duncan and pulling closer.  Then neck in neck as they round the turn toward the stretch.

Steele and Duncan, Duncan and Steele, with a smart money lay all week, maintaining case.

And now it‘s Dawson, Katon Dawson, opening up and making a move along the inside.  Dawson now with speed.

Steele, then Duncan then Dawson.  In the back stretch, it‘s Michael Steele now in full stride and opening a lead, pulling away from Duncan two lanes as we reach the halfway point for the GOPreakness.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  You know, I am always willing to make myself look really stupid on television in order to make a point, but that particular segment was a whole lot of stupid with really no explanatory value whatsoever.  What we were trying and failing to communicate with our spectacularly bad GOPreakness segment was the excitement of the horse race in the January 2009 race for Republican Party chairman.  That night two years ago, Michael Steele officially became chairman of the Republican National Committee.  It took six rounds of voting, but Michael Steele won it in the end.

Tonight, I have learned my lesson.  There will not be a big pink hat or betting slips or a Mint Julep or announcers saying things you cannot really understand, or popcorn, or any of the other things we use to try to convey the information last time.

But I‘m happy to report to you tonight with zero props that there is a new chairman of the Republican Party.  It took seven rounds of voting this time and the new chairman is a gentleman whose name is hard to pronounce.  The name, it looks like this and it‘s pronounced like this.  His name is Reince Priebus.

Congratulations to Mr. Priebus on his big win tonight.

The gentleman he takes over for, Michael Steele, is so unpredictable, so random, so gaffe-prone, that it is no secret that Mr. Steele has been really fun to cover as Republican Party chairman these past two years.  The random trips to Saipan at the start of the election season, the lesbian bondage them strip club expense, the “you wear your hat to the left, we wear our hat to the right, it‘s a hat of an idea” metaphors.

Without Michael Steele, THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW would have never owned the web address empathizerightonyourbehind.com.  I truly hope that Mr.  Steele becomes a cable news host or something else that keeps him in the public eye.

Even though he never agreed to an interview on this show during his tenure as chairman, Michael Steele was always very nice about saying no and he has been a lot of fun to cover.

When Mr. Steele finally decided to drop out of the running today, he did get a really nice sendoff from RNC committee members.  Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL STEELE, FORMER RNC CHAIRMAN:  Despite the noise, we‘ve the—

Lord knows we‘ve had a lot of noise.  Despite the difficulties, we won.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

STEELE:  Sit down, sit down.  Sit down.  Sit down.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  Beyond Michael Steele‘s remarkable personality, beyond all of the LOL, OMG follies about his term in office as RNC chairman and his fights with other high-profile Republicans, the chairmanship of the Republican Party and the health of the Republican Party as an organization is at the heart of one of the most interesting open questions of American political science in the age of Obama.

Do political parties matter anymore?  Organizationally, do they matter?  Tactically, do they matter?

I don‘t mean in terms of the policy preferences of the people in a specific party.  I don‘t mean—who‘s up, who‘s down, who‘s making sense and who‘s not, who‘s popular.  What I mean is—does having a highly functioning party make a difference anymore in whether or not you obtain power and whether you hold on to power?

Was there a connection, for example, in 2008 between the Republican Party losing eight Senate seats in that election and the chairman of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee John Ensign—being John Ensign?  I mean, without going to any of the sort of details, John Ensign at that time was really, really distracted.

As outside organizations run by people like Karl Rove start supplanting what the traditional party has done in terms of fundraising and messaging and organizing, is there a cost to that?  Is there a cost to outside groups like those run by Karl Rove doing that instead of the parties doing it?

Here‘s a specific example from this past election in Nevada.  It‘s the 2010 Nevada Senate race between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle.  All of the polls right before that election, right up until the election said Sharron Angle would be the United States senator from Nevada right now.  She is not.

Why?  Because for all of the anti-Harry Reid sentiment in Nevada, for all of the fundraising prowess of Sharron Angle, for all of the bad indicators for the guy in charge staying in power in Nevada, in November, there was something missing.  The Republican Party was notably absent on the ground in Nevada in the days leading up to that election.  There was no organizational capacity, it seemed, to turn all of those pro-Republican factors in that election into actual Republican votes.

There was no Republican Party get-out-the-vote machine there.  It‘s something that we found out when we were in Vegas just a couple of days before the election.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  What‘s the Sharron Angle turnout infrastructure?  If the Republican Party isn‘t all that here, what is she—what is she relying on for turning out votes?

JON RALSTON, LAS VEGAS SUN:  Karl Rove.

MADDOW:  What?

RALSTON:  American Crossroads announced a few weeks ago that they were going to dump a bunch of money into Nevada to help them with get-out-the-vote.

And so, they have poured some money, my understanding is, into the Nevada Republican Party, which essentially is a shill corporation.  There‘s nothing there.  And they are then using that to mail to people negative read mailers and probably for phone banking.  And so, how much they have actually come through, I don‘t—you know, we don‘t know on the reports yet.

MADDOW:  How—can you really fly in the get out to vote infrastructure?  Doesn‘t have it to be based here?  Doesn‘t have it to be organic?

RALSTON:  I think not only does it have to be organic to be effective.  But it can‘t be done in just a few weeks.  The Republican Party in the state has been a joke for a long time.  It‘s one of those things that could end up hurting Angle.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  And so because there was no Republican Party infrastructure, Nevada reporter Jon Ralston‘s prediction ended up being right in that election.  The polls didn‘t get it right.  It didn‘t matter that more people told pollsters they preferred Sharron Angle, more people voted for Harry Reid.  At least it seems in part because there was no on the ground Republican organization to translate those preferences into votes.

At the national level, what the Republican Party has long been able to brag about—and again this is a tactical thing, this has nothing to do with policy, it has to do with organizational prowess—what Republicans have long been able to brag about is this vaunted 72-hour get-out-the-vote operation, right?

The Republican Party has long bragged about something they call their voter vault database, essentially a clearing house for all sorts of information about Republican voters.  It is very, very, very specific information about who their voters are, what motivates those specific voters to get out and vote, how to reach them to make sure they get delivered to the polls at the appropriate time when Republicans need their votes.  This voter vault, this 72-hour get-out-the-vote operation that it is connected to, that has always been seen as the Republican Party‘s ace in the hole, the thing that they have most to bring to an election season.  That is to their advantage and not to Democrats the‘ advantage.

And yet, during last year‘s election, that was a weapon they were not

able to fully deploy.  Just before November‘ elections, headlines like this

remember this—started popping up.  Look at this one, quote, “Facing a cash crunch, RNC dials back on get-out-the-vote efforts.”  Cash crunch, hmm?

           

“Roll Call” newspaper reporting at that time that the RNC was killing a traditional part of its 72-hour effort, sending congressional staffers out into districts to help get out the vote.  An exasperated Republican House aide said to “Roll Call” at that time, quote, “We have the best electoral climate since 1994 and the RNC has no money for get out the vote?”

When party activists fight about who should be chairman of the party, what they‘re usually fighting about is raising money.  Michael Steele has consistently defended his ability to raise money as Republican Party chairman—and he did raise some money certainly.  But there is a problem at the RNC.

In 1996 presidential year, the Republican Party started the year without any debt.  The next presidential year, 2000, they were a little worse off, about $2 million in debt.  2004 they were back down to not having any debt.  2008, same deal, not having any debt.

Heading into the next presidential race, the best projection, the best-case scenario for Michael Steele on his way out the door is that the RNC will be $10 million in debt starting the election year.  Right now, they‘re more than $21 million in debt, which is more red ink than has ever been spilled at Republican Party headquarters in history.

Politically, everything is going the Republican party‘s way.  They did great in the midterm elections.  But if they were in better shape organizationally, would they have done even better in the November elections?  And would they have a better shot at 2012?

Joining us now is my buddy, Doug Heye, who was really nice to come on this show, especially given that today is his last day as an employee of the Republican National Committee.  He has been communications director there during Michael Steele‘s tenure.

Doug, thank you for joining us.  Now, tell me everything I just got wrong.

DOUG HEYE, RNC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR:  Well, a lot.  That won‘t surprise you that I said that.

You know, the interesting thing is we‘ve certainly talked in past elections, past campaigns about a 72-hour program.  And for your viewers, if they‘re not really familiar with it, it‘s that last drive to get voters to the polls.

But elections have fundamentally changed over the past two or three years, four years even.  What we‘ve seen is that more and more voters—

Nevada a key state for this—are voting early.  They‘re voting not 72 hours—they‘re not voting on Election Day, they‘re voting two weeks before election day, even a month before Election Day.

So, what we really need to do, this is something the incoming—not incoming now, new Republican Party chairman, my friend Reince Priebus, has talked about, is a 30-day program to really invest early.  It‘s something we tried to do at the committee but it was a starting effort.  I think you‘ll see more investment in that in the future and I‘m excited to see that.

MADDOW:  So, if the RNC wasn‘t able to fully fund or didn‘t fully fund the 72-hour program in these past elections, you‘re saying it wasn‘t because you couldn‘t afford it, but rather because you didn‘t think it was valuable anymore?

HEYE:  No, no.  Certainly getting voters to the polls is valuable, there‘s no question about that.  But the point is voters and how they vote have changed.  What we see is about 40 percent of voters have actually moved to where they‘re not voting on Election Day.  That means you have to do things differently.

We certainly tried to do everything we could to fund get-out-the-vote programs.  We contacted millions and millions of voters.  We‘re proud of our efforts, but we know we have to do better because we know here, everybody who‘s at this meeting that we‘ve had this week, wants to take back the Senate.  We want to win the White House in 2012.

And to do that, we‘re going to need to make some really key investments because we know the Obama campaign is going to raise a lot of money.  And we also know there‘s going to be a lot of money on the ground by groups that were really important to Harry Reid, labor unions.  One of the reasons that Harry Reid really made that last push in the last few hours is labor unions were out in force.  They were really a great asset to his campaign and demonstrate the problems that Republicans have if we don‘t have boots on the ground.

It‘s also one of the reasons that we welcome American Crossroads investing money.  Certainly, the American Action Network run by my friend, Rob Cowans, invested deep money into states.  We welcome that because we don‘t have—didn‘t have certainly in the past a MoveOn.org, don‘t have labor unions.  So, it‘s important that we al push in the same direction.

We started to see this in this election, we‘re going to see it more in the future.

MADDOW:  Doug, I‘ve asked you in the past about the American Crossroads and those outside groups because it does seem like when big money goes outside the party, it does raise the question of what the party is for.  And I know the line—I can hear the line from you again that it is—that you welcome it, that it is useful, that you‘re all pulling in the same direction, but I saw on the ground in Nevada, that, yes, there may have been competition from unions pulling for Harry Reid, but there was nothing functioning well in the get-out-the-vote effort in Nevada.

Those outside groups tried to do it, they really failed.  It really seemed like amateur hour.  It was people who were airlifted in who weren‘t part of any sort of organic Nevada power structure at all.

Isn‘t there some disadvantage to the RNC being sort of boxed out by these outside groups?

HEYE:  Well, I think you just identified a key problem in Nevada.  It was something certainly I was on conference call after conference call talking about, and how we make those corrections, how we make those investments to make sure we‘re doing everything that we can to win that seat, which unfortunately we did not.

But, you know, as far as outside groups, we have to remember—it‘s also an entirely different structure that they—that they deal with.  You know, we have—are limited to an individual donating $3,400 at a time.  The DNC has the same restriction.

Outside groups can take unlimited money.  They can take money from corporations, which neither political party can.  So, I would argue that, yes, the Republican Party, the RNC is important.  And also say for the Democratic efforts, the DNC is important.

But outside groups, as we‘ve seen with Supreme Court cases, have really now been able to take advantage of those to leverage, you know, their impact.  And so, again, we want to make sure from our side that everybody is moving in the same direction, moving down the same stream and it‘s why—you know, I really welcome the new chairman‘s commitment to that and also really tip my hat to my old boss, Chairman Michael Steele.  I was really proud on how he handled his exit.  I‘m proud to call him a friend and proud to have worked for him.

MADDOW:  Doug, the reason I think it‘s so interesting to look at the balance of power between the parties and these outside groups, to look at how the structure of power affects political outcomes in this country, is because it seems like it‘s one of the few things in American politics that‘s absolutely in flux and we don‘t know where it‘s going to end up.  And I was thinking about that today when we saw Michael Steele, your boss until he stepped down, drop out and then endorse essentially throw his support to Maria Cino today.  Ms. Cino was also endorsed prominently by Dick Cheney, also endorsed prominently by John Boehner, and yet, that was not enough to get her to the top tier of candidates who are running for chairman right now.

What does it—what does it mean having those high-profile endorsements wasn‘t enough?

HEYE:  Well, the national committee is a different structure.  You know, I liken it to some extent to a papal election, the College of Cardinals.  We have 168 members, three people from each state and also from the territories who vote on this.  So it‘s not a popular vote.  It‘s not something that‘s voted on by members of Congress or the United States Senate.

But I tell you, it‘s interesting.  Normally, if you have—you know, we had six ballots when Chairman Steele was elected.  We had seven today.  You know, sometimes, people will say that‘s a sign of divisiveness or, you know, a horse race, as you had said two years ago.  I didn‘t see the segment, I wish I had.

But I really see that as a sign of the strengths of the candidates that we had, whether it‘s Maria Cino, who I was cutting my teeth on Capitol Hill, Maria was one of those people you really looked up to because she‘s a consummate pro.  Ann Wagner, Saul Anuzis, just great candidates.  Michael Steele, of course.  And Reince who emerged victorious.

He did a great job in Wisconsin.  He had great wins there in that state.  Scott Walker won his race, which we‘re all proud about.  And I know Reince is going to do a good job and we look forward to what comes next.

MADDOW:  Doug Heye, communications director for the Republican National Committee until right now.  Doug, somebody with whom I disagree almost entirely on almost everything, but you‘ve been a real gentleman to us and you‘ve been a real good friend to this show, and I wish you luck in your future endeavors, Doug.  Thanks a lot.

HEYE:  Thanks so much.  And thanks also to your viewers.  I appreciate the opportunity.

MADDOW:  Absolutely.

So, there is the Republican National Committee, which is deeply in debt and which has just turned over its chairmanship and is experiencing some self-inflicted humility right now.  But then there are the people who got elected in these past elections with R‘s next to their names, and those folks are feeling rather—what‘s the opposite of humility?

Given everything that‘s happened this week, how full of your own power would you have to feel to stamp out a teeny, tiny, extra narrow, super specific gun control measure before anybody had even offered an opinion on it?  Please stay tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  This week was anything but business as usual in Washington. 

The House, for example, cleared its calendar of all expected business.  They instead paid their respects to their colleague, Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot and gravely wounded in Tucson this weekend, and they adjourned then in honor of all of the victims of that shooting.

Closing down the House was a bold decision taken by the new speaker, Republican Congressman John Boehner.  It was one that nobody took any issue with.  I think for good reason.

But next week, the House is back in session and it remains to be seen whether the events of this remarkable week will have any effect on the way the House conducts its business next week.  As of now, the plan is to start debate on the Republicans‘ plan to repeal health reform on Tuesday.  And as of now, it is a bill that they are still calling Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.

Nobody expects them to drop their effort to repeal health reform, but who knows.  Maybe they will drop the word “killing” out of the name of the bill.  A girl can dream.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  In Tucson, Arizona, the mass public expression of grief and of support for the Saturday shooting victims and their families continued today, two days after more than 25,000 people filled and surrounded the McKale Center at the University of Arizona for Wednesday night‘s public memorial.

Today saw the funeral of Federal Judge John Roll.  Some of the people hoping to attend the funeral were turned away, as the St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton Catholic Church was filled to capacity.  And as people did for the funeral of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green yesterday, according to the “Arizona Daily Star” people again spontaneously turned out to line the roadside today to pay their respects to Judge Roll.  Tributes to the judge extended to Congress where Arizona‘s U.S. senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, introduced legislation to name a new courthouse in Yuma, Arizona, after Judge Roll.

Doctors at the University Medical Center also updated the condition of the surviving victims of Saturday‘s shooting.  The news was generally optimistic.  First “The New York Times” reports that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords chief surgeon, Dr. Peter Rhee, confirmed that the congresswoman is not only opening her eyes, she‘s started to rub her eyes, to wake up spontaneously, to communicate using her left hand and to move both of her legs on command.

Ron Barber, Congresswoman Giffords‘ district director who was wounded on Saturday, he was discharged from the hospital today.

Another Giffords staffer, Pam Simon, was shot once in the wrist and once in the chest on Saturday.  The bullet that hit her chest ended up missing her vital organs.  It lodged in her hip.  Amazingly, Pam Simon returned to work today.  It has not even been a week since the shooting.

She spoke with NBC News‘ Kristen Welker earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAM SIMON, REP. GIFFORDS STAFFER:  I never actually felt like I was going to die.  I just had this resolute feeling that I was going to be OK.  Kind of did a self pep talk.

KRISTEN WELKER, NBC NEWS:  What do you think gave you that feeling?

SIMON:  I think I need to be here.  I think that was more than anything else, I just—there‘s a lot of—lot of unfinished business.  So I just felt like I needed to be here.

WELKER:  We all watched you greet your fellow staffers here, but tell us what it was like for you to see those faces inside Congresswoman Giffords‘ office for the very first time since Saturday‘s shooting.

SIMON:  It‘s like seeing family after—this is an interesting situation where we have much to celebrate.  I celebrate every morning that I‘m still here—people that survived, Gabby‘s progress, and we also have things that mourn.  So, it‘s a lot of conflicting emotions.

But seeing the staff, it‘s—we‘re a family.  And we‘re going to support each other.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Do you believe that a person who‘s on the terrorist watch list should be allowed to buy an assault rifle in the United States?  If law enforcement officials have put somebody on the terrorist watch list because he‘s suspected of being a terrorist or they say he has known ties to terrorism, should that person be able to buy an AK-47?  How many people are in favor of selling the guy on the terrorism watch list an assault rifle and all the ammunition he can carry?

I cannot see you through the TV, but I‘m going to go out on a limb and guess that most of you are not raising your hands right now.

Most American gun owners, specifically when polled on this question, say it should not be legal to sell guns to people on the terrorist watch list.  But alas, if you are on the terrorist watch list, get thee to the nearest gun show and you‘re welcome to buy whatever you like.  Thanks for your business.  Happy holy war.

Most people are against that policy.  Most Americans would prefer to change that law that makes it OK for people on the terrorism watch list to buy assault rifles at gun shows.

But our representative democracy has not translated that desire for action on the part of the American people into actual action.  There isn‘t a constitutional barrier to doing that.  All sorts of people are supposed to be blocked from buying firearms in this country.  It‘s not a constitutional problem.

But the terrorist watch list thing has nevertheless fallen right through the gun show loophole.

This is a big fundamental question about the United States of America.  And although it is a fundamental question, it is not abstract.  It is an empirical question.

When our country needs to do something about a problem, can we?  If we need a new policy on something to deal with a problem that we have as a country, are we capable of doing it?  Is our policymaking apparatus able to make a change when we need a change?  Or are there specific types of problems we face as a country that we‘re just helpless to confront?

In the wake of the Tucson shootings, the office of Speaker John Boehner has started giving anonymous quotes to reporters, hinting that the narrowest possible, least politicized reinstatement of previous policy to address one of the ways that things went so horribly wrong in Tucson, that policy change is off the table.  It is not even worthy of debate.

The alleged shooter in Arizona fired 31 bullets before he was subdued.  He killed or wounded 20 people before he was stopped.  And he was stopped only because he had to reload.

The extended magazine he had that allowed him to keep shooting 31 times before reloading, that is something he could not have legally bought, even just a few years ago.  The law banning a magazine that large expired in 2004.

It is hard to imagine a narrower, less restrictive legislative response to this shooting than to just reinstate that one provision that used to be law as recently as 2004.  But so far, the indications from Speaker Boehner are that this kind of a change, reinstating that law, cannot even be discussed in Congress.

We contacted the speaker‘s office today for comment.  We‘re still waiting by the phone to hear back.

Joining us now is “New York Times” columnist Gail Collins, who‘s been writing this.

Gail, thank you so much for joining us tonight.

GAIL COLLINS, NEW YORK TIMES:  It‘s a pleasure.

MADDOW:  Let‘s do a thought experiment.  Fast forward to President Obama signing a reinstatement of the ban on high-capacity clips—let‘s say Congress agreed to that in response to what happened in Tucson.  If you could imagine that happening, what‘s the way we would have most likely have gotten there?  Who could make this happen if it were going to happen?

COLLINS:  The people who can make it happen are the people in the states that are not the usual suspects in this stuff.  I don‘t know except for continuing the fight, continuing the argument, just preparing the way for the future whenever it happens.  I don‘t know that New York or Connecticut or even California are going to be the ones who are going to do this because it‘s going to have to be states, and people and voters in places where it‘s just not—not as normally thought of, where gun control was not something that you‘re used to.

MADDOW:  Is there a sort of suburban Republican politics still?  Or could there be a suburban politics through which there might emerge some sort of bipartisan agreement to do this?  Are there—are there Republicans representing purple districts or purple states that might be able to cross the line on this?

COLLINS:  Yes.  Well, this is a very simple problem.  I have not seen

I‘ve heard a lot of arguments.  I‘ve heard a lot of guys coming out and saying, I‘m carrying my gun more.  So, I‘m going to bring my gun to the House of Representatives.

           

But you don‘t hear Congress people coming up and saying I really want to keep those magazine clips going.  You know, we really need those 30 shots all the time.  They don‘t want to talk about it because all they‘re afraid of is that if they talk about something like that, if they vote on something like that, the NRA will consider it as part of their grade the next time there‘s an election, and they do not want a bad grade from the NRA.  It‘s that simple and that narrow and that small.

So, all you need is people caring as much on the other side as the NRA people care on this side to make a change.

MADDOW:  Well, and caring is the issue there.  I mean, when you look at the polling on a specific issue like the terrorism watch list, gun show loophole, or you look at—I would imagine if we start to see polling specifically on high-capacity magazines for semiautomatic handguns, if people were able to poll specifically on the McCarthy bill that would just make that one change, I think that you would see that, like you do with that terrorism watch list one, you would see not only a majority of people favoring the change, but even a majority of gun owners might favor that sort of change.

And yet the NRA, without the numbers on its side, still has the politics on its side.  Is that—is that just a—is that just a matter of their political leverage about how devoted they are toward getting their way, even when they‘re in the minority?  How—what explains their power?

COLLINS:  Totally.  It‘s all about in poli-sci class what we used to call the intensity of preference, that people who would like to see these gun clips go away, the people who would like people on the terrorism watch list not to be able to buy a gun don‘t feel intensely about it.  They don‘t get up in the morning for the most part thinking, we‘ve got to get that terrorism watch list gun thing going.

And the people on the other side don‘t think about anything else.  So, it‘s very—I mean, you know you‘re not going to lose an election because you‘re constituents are ticked off with you because you failed to get the magazine clip bill farther, because they have got all these other things on their agenda that are also important to them, but the people who really care, really, really, really, really care about keeping any gun regulation from happening.

MADDOW:  And that‘s how the zealots get their way.  Sometimes, a national shot can change this.  In this case, I guess, we don‘t yet know whether it will.

“New York Times” columnist Gail Collins—thank you for writing about this with the clarity with which you have been recently.  Thanks for joining us tonight.

COLLINS:  Thanks.

MADDOW:  The ATF, the federal agency charged with enforcing laws about guns.  Your sobering moment and otherwise intoxicating evening is this: the ATF, which is our nation‘s agency in charge of dealing with laws about guns, the ATF has no director.  It has no chief, because of another more politically potent three-lettered organization which should take you two seconds to figure it out.  You do actually have about two minutes to figure it out because we‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, DEPUTY DIRECTOR MELSON ON WEBCAST, DEC. 20, 2010)

KEN MELSON, ATF DEPUTY DIRECTOR:  Hello.  I‘m Ken Melson, the acting director of ATF.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  Hi, Ken.

Do you want to get a sense of the flavor of debates over gun policy?  Do you want to get a sense of that without wading too much into the dark pro-gun corners of the Internet?  Sometime, treat yourself to reading the comments under one of these friendly little videos produced by the ATF.  They produce these videos to explain what‘s going on with the nation‘s gun laws.

You only have to get to comment two on this video, this ATF video, before poor old Ken Melson there is denounced in the YouTube as a jack-booted goon.

The ATF is the agency in charge of dealing with illegal guns in this country.  The shootings in Tucson this past weekend, as far as we know, were not committed with an illegal gun.  They were committed with a gun and with ammunition that seems to have been purchased at least sort of legally.  We don‘t yet know all of those details.

But if you want to know how sclerotic our nation‘s policies are about anything having to do with guns, if you want to be how sclerotic the politics are about this issue, consider that the entire time Barack Obama has been president, we have not had anybody running the ATF.

As you saw there on the little title card in the video, Ken Melson, the jack-booted goon, he is the—he is the deputy director of the ATF.  Who is he deputy to?  Nobody.

He is the acting head of the agency.  He‘s the acting head of the agency as well because the Senate will not confirm anybody other than an acting director.  The Senate won‘t confirm anybody to the full-time job.

Why won‘t the Senate confirm anybody?  Well, the NRA naturally is opposed, and other gun groups don‘t even bother opposing the specific nominee to run this agency.  They actually just want to abolish the entire agency.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

LARRY PRATT, GUN OWNERS OF AMERICA EXEC. DIRECTOR:  No, we want to ban the organization altogether.  It has no constitutional warrant.  It was established by executive order by the anti-Second Amendment Richard Nixon administration.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MADDOW:  The anti-Second Amendment Richard Nixon administration.  Darn that hippy Dick Nixon.

The group Mayors Against Illegal Guns is campaigning that our country should finally get a full-time Senate-confirmed director of the ATF because this is the one agency in the country that‘s responsible for dealing with illegal guns at the national level.

Should such an agency be allowed to exist?  And if it is going to exist, should the agency be allowed to have somebody be in charge of it?

This is the level of debate we are capable of having right now about policy having to do with guns.  On an evolutionary scale, if this debate were an organism, it would be an ameba.

Joining us is a former ATF special agent in charge of the agency‘s Nashville Field Division, James Cavanaugh.  In the 33 years with the bureau, Mr. Cavanaugh worked on high-profile cases, including Waco, the Unabomber, the Olympic Park bomber, Eric Rudolph, the 1986 bombing at the abortion clinic of the late Dr. George Tiller.

Mr. Cavanaugh, thank you very much for joining us tonight.  It‘s nice to have you back on the show.

JAMES CAVANAUGH, FMR. ATF SPECIAL AGENT:  Hello, Rachel.

MADDOW:  What is the practical impact of not having a confirmed director for the ATF?

CAVANAUGH:  Well, of course not having a leader in any organization always hurts the organization a little bit.

We‘ve had some great people.  You mentioned Ken Melson.  He‘s done a great job up there.  Prior to him we had another outstanding fellow named Mike Sullivan.

So, we‘ve had great guys who have done a tremendous job for the country acting and one of the toughest jobs in government is director of ATF.  But for 4 ½ years, there‘s not been a confirmed director appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate and that hurts an organization.

A law enforcement organization is critical to America, ATF is.  And despite what some of the people say in your lead-in about ATF—I mean, ATF is very important to the country.  It‘s come along with the democracy all along.  I‘d like to say that George Washington was the first ATF agent when he put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania in 1791.

So, from Eliot Ness who was in ATF when we were the Bureau of Prohibition and busting gangs right up today, we‘re one of the most—and I‘m retired now, but one of the most important agencies in the government and one of the most hard-hitting agencies against violence, gun violence, gangs, motorcycle gangs, Klansmen, militiamen, bombers, gun traffickers, you name it.  ATF is always in the thick of it.

So, it needs to have a director.  And we need leadership now.  We need the Senate to stand up and confirm a director.

MADDOW:  One of the things that I was reminded about this week when I was looking into the politics around the ATF director still having an acting director, not being able to get somebody confirmed, when I was looking into the way that the gun lobby talks about the agency, is that it is still, in 2011, totally riddled with conspiracy theories, with these sort of black helicopter, jack-booted thugs conspiracy theories about the ATF being an anti-American oppressive organization out to take away American freedoms.  That‘s a very long-standing caricature of ATF by guns rights groups.

How does that practically affect the way the agency is able to do its work?

CAVANAUGH:  You know, in ATF, you‘re going to have to be tough because they‘re going to be shooting real bullets at you and they‘re going to be shooting all that criticism at you all the time.  And then you‘re beat up political a lot of times, you‘re a political football.  You can‘t get much support sometimes or traction in Washington.

There‘s been a lot of heroes for ATF in the Congress, in the committees, the appropriations leaders have helped us to, you know, stay alive as a viable law enforcement agency in the Department of Justice, and one of the main ones in the government.

You know, here‘s a fact that‘s interesting.  In 1972, and I went on ATF in the ‘70s, there was 2,500 agents.  And there are still 2,500 agents.  Thirty-nine years later, there‘s been no increase in agents in the ATF.

And there‘s no law enforcement agency in the federal government that‘s had that happen.  They have exponentially grown.

So, it‘s sort of kept small and in the corner.  But it‘s—people fight every day for justice.

MADDOW:  James Cavanaugh, former ATF special agent in charge of the Nashville Field Division, somebody who‘s joined us a couple of times here to talk about the law enforcement politics around these issues—thanks for helping us understand this issue, sir.  I really appreciate it.

CAVANAUGH:  Thank you, Rachel.

MADDOW:  So, we‘ve been covering gun policy all week long intensively for obvious and for awful reasons.  And in that coverage, we have used the fact that machine guns are legal in this country.  We‘ve used that as an example and a whole bunch of our segments about how gun laws work in our country.

And that prompted a very simple question in one of our news meetings as a staff yesterday.  Somebody on the staff raised their hand and said, hey, if machine guns are illegal, then why was Rachel able to shoot a machine gun at that gun range when she did that Second Amendment remedies in review in Las Vegas right before the election?  Good question.

It turns out the answer is even better.  It is a super strange answer, and super interesting, and super informative about how our gun policies work.  Please stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Watch this clip for a second.

(VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  What‘s with the phone ringing in the background?  That is the dictator of Tunisia.

When demonstrations in his country were ratcheting out of state control, that guy gave a televised address to his country to show Tunisia that he was still in control.  While he was trying to make that case on TV, his phone kept ringing.  It kept ringing for almost a minute.  Dude wasn‘t even the boss enough to get somebody else to answer the phone during his “I‘m the boss” speech on television.

Well, today his government fell.  And because of the Tunisian bloggers who excerpted that clip of the dude‘s phone ringing all through his televised speech—we all very, very strangely saw it coming.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  When President Obama named Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state, one political implication of that was that the rivalry from the Democratic primary campaign had been resolved, that the competitors from the primaries, they were now allies, and in fact, colleagues.

The other big political implication was that the State Department was getting a power surge.  Because everything that Hillary Clinton does is in some ways internationally newsworthy, because of her skill and her power as a political figure, the U.S. military essentially got a counterweight in Washington and in the world—a civilian counterweight at the State Department.

Part of that weight was the larger than life uber diplomat, the late Richard Holbrooke, who from his offices on the first floor of the State Department led a sprawling team of young, ambitious, brilliant staffers to support his role as the country‘s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  It was a job title created for him.  And in Washington speak, these things all become acronyms.  His team was called the SRAP.

Today, at Mr. Holbrooke‘s funeral in Washington, President Obama singled out that SRAP team.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Today, I‘d like to make a personal appeal to the SRAP team, particularly the young people.  Stay in public service.  Serve your country.  Seek the peace that your mentor so ardently sought.

I also know that Richard would want us to lift up the next generation of public servants, particularly our diplomats, who so rarely receive credit.  So, I‘m proud to announce the creation of an annual Richard C.  Holbrooke Award to honor excellence in American diplomacy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCILA BREAK)

MADDOW:  For the last few days on this show, we have been reporting a lot about guns and gun laws.  One of the idiosyncrasies we have come across is that for some of the weapons we think of being banned for civilian use in the United States, there is some civilian access to those weapons, like, say, machine guns.  It is common knowledge that there is a ban on fully automatic weapons in the United States, a ban on machine guns, right?

However, when we went to Nevada to cover Sharron Angle and the political impact of her Second Amendment remedies comment just before the last election, we went to a place called the Gun Store.  You may remember me interviewing the proprietor of the Gun Store.  His name is Bob Irwin.  He‘s a conservative politician himself. He is well-respected gun dealer who‘s been in the gun business for more than 25 years.

Among the things that you can shoot at Mr. Irwin‘s range is a whole variety of machine guns.  But, wait, how is that possible?  Aren‘t machine guns illegal?

It turns out they‘re not technically illegal.  They are highly restricted.  And the difference between being illegal and being highly restricted turns out is fascinating.

The National Firearms Act of 1934, among other things, put a tax on certain firearms, including machine guns.  The idea was to make it so expensive to buy a machine gun that nobody would be able to afford them.  The super duper prohibitively expensive machine gun tax: $200, which probably was pretty effective as a deterrent in 1934.

Of course, it‘s still the exact same amount today.  It‘s still $200, which is, frankly, less effective as a price deterrent.  Luckily, for those of us who remain unarmored, that really high tax of $200 American dollars is not the only restriction that there is on machine guns in this country.  They‘re restricted in other ways as well.

And that brings us back to Las Vegas and how it is that people are able to shoot machine guns at the Gun Store, even though they are as good as banned for civilian use.

We spoke with the Gun Store owner, Mr. Irwin, again today to try to make of sense of this.  And this is what he told us about the process of him getting licensed to own a machine gun and to have people pay them to shoot them.  First of all, some states have their own laws that go beyond the federal government‘s near-ban on these things.  In those states, machine guns are pretty much just banned effectively.

But for the rest of the country, where there are very lax gun laws, there is a licensing process—a licensing process that starts locally.

Fingerprints are taken to identify the potential machine gun owner, to make sure that the person is who they say they are.  The chief local law enforcement officer where this person lives has to sign a form confirming that this person‘s ownership of a machine gun wouldn‘t violate local laws.  According to Bob Irwin, local law enforcement officials typically do their own background checks before signing off on something like that.

Then the machine gun applicant sends their form—signed by local law enforcement—and their check for $200, over to the ATF.  Then the ATF does their own background investigation.

Mr. Irwin tells us right now this process takes about five to six months.  For a machine gun dealer, for somebody like Bob Irwin, every employee who has access to keys or alarm codes in his store has to go through that same restrictive licensing process.

Bob Irwin has what‘s called a Class 2 dealer‘s license, issued through the Treasury Department.  As part of the requirements for maintaining that license, the ATF does regular surprise audits of his inventory.  They show up and spend days making sure that every single gun and every single serial number and every single record in his store match their records.  If they find a discrepancy, which in Bob‘s case they never have, they have the authority to immediately shut down the store and revoke Mr. Irwin‘s license.

So, the consensus in America is that the Constitution gives citizens access to firearms, right?  Because of that, machine guns are not banned.  They are not illegal.

But the consensus interpretation of the Second Amendment in modern America is that our right to have access to firearms comes with reasonable restrictions on it.  And so, that means that even though something like a machine gun is not technically banned outright, we intricately tax and regulate and control access to it like we do to a lot of different kinds of weaponry.  Not just machine guns, but rocket-propelled grenade launchers and mortars and cannons and explosive time bombs and anti-tank guns, and Molotov cocktails.

Yes, private firearm ownership is legal and constitutionally protected in the United States—up to a certain line.  That is how we have always dealt with the issue.

In the wake of Tucson shootings, whether or not high-capacity magazines are going to be put behind that line again, like they were just six years ago, that is what Congress would be debating right now, if only John Boehner would let them.

That does it for us tonight.  Have a great weekend.  Good night.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

Copyright 2011 CQ-Roll Call, Inc.  All materials herein are protected by

United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed,

transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written

permission of CQ-Roll Call. You may not alter or remove any trademark,

copyright or other notice from copies of the content.>

PASTE THE TRANSCRIPT HERE, LEAVE THE BELOW PART ALONE

WATCH 'THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW' WEEKDAYS AT 9:00 P.M. ON MSNBC.