Matt Windschitl had one more chance to address colleagues in the Iowa House of Representatives before they voted on his pro-gun bill, the culmination of a yearslong effort to produce what one supporter hailed as “the most monumental and sweeping piece of gun legislation in Iowa’s history.” The veteran Republican lawmaker walked up to the chamber podium — and unleashed a counterattack against an unlikely foe.
It was April 2017, and for years Windschitl had found himself absorbing broadsides from a man named Aaron Dorr, a far-right provocateur who led a gun rights advocacy organization called Iowa Gun Owners. Dorr had recently taken to Facebook to accuse Windschitl of brokering backroom deals to appease anti-gun forces in the state Capitol, saying the lawmaker was “far more concerned about making sure his hair is just perfectly taken care of” than fighting for gun rights.
Standing stern-faced at the microphone, Windschitl denounced the professed activist as a hype man focused on ginning up donations for his group. Dorr promoted himself as the leader of Iowa’s only “no compromise gun lobby,” but Windschitl pointed out that Dorr was not even registered as a lobbyist. When Windschitl asked whether anyone in the chamber had spoken to Dorr about the omnibus gun bill, no one raised a hand.
“If you’re sending this guy money, I’m asking you to stop… It is time for his scam to end,” Windschitl said. “You need and you deserve the truth: Aaron Dorr is a scam artist, a liar, and he is doing Iowans no services and no favors.”
Dorr received an avalanche of criticism in the months and years that followed as he and two of his younger brothers — Chris and Ben — applied their brand of far-right activism to contentious political issues. The brothers, who were raised in Iowa, are part of a circle of far-right activists who manage more than a dozen nonprofits spread around the country, from Wyoming and Wisconsin to North Carolina and Georgia. They have built a massive grassroots fundraising machine that churns out a steady stream of messages beseeching donations to snuff out gun control, abortion rights, and other sources of conservative outrage.
In April, about a month after COVID-19 lockdowns took effect in the U.S., Reddit users placed the three brothers at the center of an astroturfing campaign against government measures designed to slow the outbreak. Chris Dorr helped organize a demonstration in the Pennsylvania capital despite official warnings about mass gatherings leading to a surge of infections. Since then, the death toll from coronavirus in Pennsylvania has climbed to more than 6,400. In recent weeks, the brothers sounded alarms about the “thugs,” “criminals,” and “political terrorists” who took to the streets nationwide following the May killing of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
At the center of the Dorrs’ efforts is the brothers’ own for-profit consulting firm, which has received huge sums of money from their tax-exempt organizations, fueling allegations that the brothers are deceiving their supporters.
“What they’re doing is raising a lot of money by setting up nonprofits and latching onto various conservative, hot-button issues,” said Scott Hubay, an Ohio attorney who specializes in nonprofit compliance and examined findings compiled by The Trace and The Daily Beast. “But instead of spending that money on what they told the public their purpose was, they appear to be using it to enrich themselves.”
The Dorrs’ affiliated outfits have hauled in millions of dollars over the years, tax returns show. But successes on the fundraising front are belied by waning political clout, as the brothers’ tactics draw increasing fire from across the ideological spectrum. Their enemies denounce them as parasitic gadflies bent on using the latest political zeitgeist and alarmist rhetoric to line their own pockets, sometimes at the expense of causes they claim to support. Some of the biggest criticisms have emanated from the pro-gun community, including the National Rifle Association, which accused Aaron and Chris Dorr of being scam artists.
After The Trace and The Daily Beast sent this investigation’s findings to the Dorr brothers, Aaron Dorr responded with a statement that he said was also issued on behalf of his siblings. “The Trace and its affiliated entities have always been tops on the list of the radical Left’s Hate-America fake-news outlets,” he said.
“At a time when armed thugs are rioting in our streets, murdering police officers, looting stores and burning down private businesses, we Dorr brothers could not be more proud of the aggressive, vicious fighting we do for law-abiding gun owners and pro-lifers all across America,” he added. “We apologize for nothing, and to be attacked by the same socialist, fake-news blogs that hate President Trump means we are doing our jobs fabulously.”
But the Dorrs’ footprint grew as widening ideological divisions and fragmenting media created fertile ground for conspiracy theories and misinformation. COVID-19 brought this “infodemic” into sharper relief as false claims about the coronavirus — including some pushed by President Donald Trump — continue to frustrate efforts to contain the disease. The Dorr brothers were early propagators of the notion that power-hungry politicians were exploiting the outbreak to weaken coveted American freedoms, a line with echoes in the gun rights debate, where proposals for stricter laws have raised the specter of mass firearm confiscation.
Leading up to early protests against COVID-19-related lockdowns, the Dorrs created Facebook groups to organize opposition in Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These groups attracted more than 200,000 members and became rallying points for conspiracy theorists. People who joined were directed to misleading web addresses — www.ReOpenMN.com, for instance — where they could ostensibly message leaders to reopen their state’s economy. Those who clicked on the links were taken to websites for the Dorrs’ gun rights groups, where they could buy memberships from $35 to $1,000.
Secrecy, Self-Dealing, and Greed at the NRA
“These are the kinds of things these guys do. They take advantage of rabble-rousing on the far-right,” said Minnesota state Senator Ron Latz, a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party whose efforts to tighten gun laws have drawn the Dorrs’ wrath. “It’s a business for them,” Latz added. “They know how to do it, and they’re jerks.”
After The Washington Post first reported on the Dorrs’ role in the burgeoning anti-quarantine movement, the credit card processor handling donations to the brothers’ groups quietly booted them off its platform. Aaron and Chris Dorr sent out nearly identical messages in which each of them said they had been alerted to the processor’s action by a lifetime member who wanted to contribute $100 to their respective groups. They portrayed the de-platforming as part of a “corporate gun control movement” that would “hamper our efforts to expose gun grabbers” during the upcoming election cycle. By the time they sent out the messages, they had brought their fundraising capabilities back online. “If we don’t have the ammo we need to fight with, we can’t fight. It’s just that simple,” both messages said. “And that’s why I want to ask you to make an emergency donation.”
While the Dorrs’ gun rights groups have nothing close to the prowess or profile enjoyed by the NRA, they’ve flourished at a time when internal feuds and financial scandals are hobbling America’s most influential gun rights organization, creating an opportunity for activists whose aggressive and unconventional tactics previously relegated them to the margins of American culture wars.
Casting themselves as the “most powerful” counterweight to “jelly-spined Republican politicians” and “anti-gun socialists,” the Dorrs have seized the moment to hone their image as the uncompromising wing of gun rights advocacy. But these pitches frequently involve misleading statements, embellishments, and outright falsehoods. A close look at the brothers’ online activity reveals numerous instances in which one of them mischaracterized a lawmaker’s record, attacked pro-gun Republicans as anything but, or spun criticisms of them and their groups as evidence of their influence.
After Windschitl denounced Aaron Dorr on the Iowa House floor in 2017, lawmakers approved the omnibus gun bill, which included “Stand Your Ground” protections for gun owners who killed in self-defense. Republican Governor Terry Branstad signed the measure into law. Despite Windschitl’s public assertions denying Dorr’s role in the bill’s success, the activist has claimed credit, anyway.
Later that same year, Aaron Dorr defeated state House ethics charges brought by another Republican lawmaker who argued he had violated lobbyist registration rules. The lawmaker pointed to Facebook videos in which Dorr claimed to have conducted “meetings with legislators” and spent time “finalizing legislation” at the Capitol. Dorr defended himself by asserting that there were, in fact, “no direct lobbying activities by me.”
Included in his evidence: No one raised a hand when Windschitl asked whether any House members had spoken to Dorr about the omnibus gun bill.
After the House Ethics Committee dismissed the charges — the chairman cited “loopholes” that exempted unpaid nonprofit directors from registration requirements — Dorr sent out a fundraising plea characterizing the ordeal as “payback” for “FORCING the General Assembly to pass Stand-Your-Ground and much more during the 2017 legislative session.”
Revilement among mainstream gun rights advocates and GOP politicians has produced entire websites devoted to debunking the Dorrs’ rhetoric. Ben Dorr, the youngest of the three brothers, is the political director for Minnesota Gun Rights. He claimed to have killed “every single” gun control bill filed in Minnesota over the last few years, a remarkable assertion given how the state’s pro-gun lawmakers have publicly and emphatically denounced his group since at least 2015. In February, the House and Senate Republican caucuses joined with Republican Party leaders to launch www.mnscammersexposed.com, dedicated to warning constituents about the brothers’ attempts to cash in on “unsuspecting Minnesotans sympathetic to their message.”
Aaron Dorr once described himself as a graduate of “numerous Rothfeld schools,” an apparent reference to Mike Rothfeld, a national political consultant known for his mastery of direct-mail marketing, now a centerpiece of the brothers’ fundraising efforts. Rothfeld, who declined to comment for this story, has sat on the board of directors for the National Association for Gun Rights, whose strongarm methods and absolutist portrayal of Second Amendment rights blazed a trail for the Dorr brothers to follow.
The National Association for Gun Rights stepped in with early fundraising help after Aaron Dorr launched Iowa Gun Owners in 2009. It wasn’t long before he tasted national notoriety. Chris Dorr, while working for U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign before the 2012 Iowa caucuses, was alleged to have stolen a politically valuable Excel spreadsheet from a colleague’s private computer containing contact information for members of Iowa’s largest homeschool organization. Chris Dorr had also clerked for state Senator Kent Sorenson, who was surreptitiously accepting payments from the Bachmann campaign for his endorsement, but was considering switching allegiance to Ron Paul, and the homeschool list would help make Sorenson more appealing as a paid surrogate.
Acting as Sorenson’s go-between, Aaron Dorr emailed Paul’s campaign manager a list of demands: $8,000 a month for Sorenson; $5,000 a month for Chris Dorr; and a $100,000 donation to a political action committee. That committee was chaired by an Iowa Gun Owners board member. Also, one of Paul’s campaign staffers would need to sign a letter apologizing for previous public statements bashing the gun rights group. One of the things the campaign would receive in exchange was the “list of the main Iowa home-school group … allowing for targeted home-school mail,” Aaron Dorr wrote.
Sorenson went on to collect $73,000 funneled to his consulting firm to mask the Paul campaign as the money’s source. Sorenson and three Paul campaign staffers were later convicted of criminal charges. Sorenson and one Paul staffer served time in federal prison, while the other two received probation. The Dorrs were never charged.
The brothers’ involvement in the payoff scheme came into focus after Aaron Dorr’s email surfaced in the news. Chris Dorr was copied on the email. However, he told investigators he didn’t read it until after the story broke. He claimed ignorance in relation to his brother’s negotiations with the Paul campaign and described the taking of the homeschool list as a mistake that likely occurred while he was procuring data around the office. An Iowa Senate ethics report later concluded that the evidence was “conflicting” as to whether Chris Dorr’s claims regarding the list were true.
Over several years after the presidential campaign, the brothers expanded by opening or affiliating with gun rights groups in Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. They have also linked up with hard-right characters leading pro-gun organizations in Georgia, Idaho, North Carolina, and Missouri, among other places, spawning a network of affiliates with similar websites, messaging, and tactics.
As the executive director at Ohio Gun Owners, Chris Dorr leads operations in Columbus, where he’s made enemies with gun rights activists and Republican politicians alike. Officials at the Buckeye Firearms Association blasted Ohio Gun Owners as a “false flag group” that was urging supporters to sign petitions to build a database for future fundraising efforts. In August, Republican Governor Mike DeWine referred Chris Dorr to State Police after he said there would be “political bodies laying all over the ground” and a “corpse for the buzzards” if lawmakers clamped down on guns following the mass shooting that killed nine people in Dayton. The police closed the investigation without filing criminal charges.
Chris Dorr’s antics have become something of a joke at the Statehouse, where he’s eschewed important legislative announcements to set up his tripod in the hall and film himself for supporters. He recently took his trademark bushy beard on camera to claim that George Lang, a Republican Ohio state representative and chair of the House Criminal Justice Committee, had voted against stand your ground legislation in 2018 and let a similar measure stall after it was filed one year later. In fact, Lang voted in favor of a bill containing stand your ground in 2018 before that provision was removed by the Senate. Lang co-sponsored the measure introduced the following year and, in a phone interview, he said the bill didn’t advance because neither of the primary sponsors requested a hearing.
“I did not watch the video at all, so I don’t know what he’s talking about, but if he inferred in any way that I have ever voted against stand your ground legislation, that’s a bald-faced lie,” Lang said in a telephone interview. He added that Ohio Gun Owners’ attacks had cost it a potential ally. “From an ideological perspective, I probably line up with that group on about 90 percent of the issues, but I do not in any way, shape, or form condone the tactics that they use.”
Gun rights advocates who’ve watched the brothers at work hope they will leave the game. Turf wars and funding battles are common in the nonprofit world, but the Dorrs’ unpopularity among would-be allies is remarkable, and underscores their penchant for sabotage. Their all-or-nothing approach dispenses with political strategizing and coalition-building in favor of a scorched-earth plan likely to be counterproductive.
“We are familiar with their tactics: They’re a fundraising organization, and they use the money for themselves,” said Jerry Henry, the executive director of GeorgiaCarry.Org, a pro-gun organization that’s grappled with the Dorrs’ Georgia chapter. “They’ll introduce a piece of legislation and then come out against everybody who can pass that legislation for them.”
Since the enactment of Windschitl’s stand your ground law in Iowa, Aaron Dorr has channeled his energies into advocating constitutional carry, which abolishes permitting requirements for carrying handguns in public. But as lawmakers rallied votes for constitutional carry legislation in 2019, Dorr attacked committee leaders whose support was crucial to moving it forward. Republican Jason Schultz, who’d been guiding the bill through the state Senate, was so appalled he yanked it from consideration and then read a statement vowing to never back any bill Dorr put his hands on. Schultz’s colleagues applauded.
In a phone interview, Schultz said the Dorr brothers were mostly concerned about their bottom line. “They’re only throwing gas on the fire to generate more donations, contributions, and memberships,” Schultz said. “I used to think they were really bad lobbyists; it turns out they’re working against the cause they claim to be fighting for.”
Nonprofits are required to disclose details about yearly revenues and expenses on publicly available tax returns if their gross receipts are more than $50,000. The Internal Revenue Service can yank a group’s tax-exempt status or levy fines if vendors, board members, or executives improperly enriched themselves at the expense of an organization’s mission.
Tax returns for the Dorrs’ gun rights groups show they have seldom received compensation despite reporting that they worked as many as 70 hours per week. One of the few exceptions was in 2018, when Chris Dorr reported earning $30,000 from Ohio Gun Owners. Aaron Dorr has disclosed a total of less than $10,000 in pay since Iowa Gun Owners formed more than a decade ago.
But a closer look through the Dorrs’ statements and public records shows donations are steered to the brothers in multiple ways. One of the primary channels involves a for-profit consulting and direct mail business, Midwest Freedom Enterprises L.L.C. The brothers recently cut an hour-long video in which they took viewers on a tour of the warehouse where Midwest Freedom Enterprises is ostensibly headquartered, showing off some of the gadgetry they use to print, fold, and stuff mailers into envelopes.
Aaron and Chris Dorr spoke in the video about launching the company in the early days of Iowa Gun Owners because it was cheaper to cram mailboxes with solicitations if they created them in-house. At one point, Ben Dorr held up a sheet of paper and read off the amount — nearly $125,000 — Minnesota Gun Rights paid for direct mail and postage “pulverizing those anti-gun candidates” and keeping members informed in 2016. The price tag would have been twice as high if not for Midwest Freedom Enterprises, he said.
“And if these politicians don’t like it, we frankly don’t give a crap. We don’t give a damn what you think,” Ben Dorr said. “We’re fighting for our members… and we’re saving them so much membership dues, so much money by doing it for pennies on the dollar because we love watching politicians cry.”
He smirked. “At least I do.”
Direct mail has long been a favored fundraising tactic on the right. The Trace and The Daily Beast analyzed seven gun rights groups in the brothers’ network that had filed at least one detailed financial statement with the Internal Revenue Service between 2014 and 2018. The examination showed that these groups collectively spent more than $1.9 million on direct mail, postage, and related costs, accounting for almost half of their cumulative expenses.
Most of that money — nearly $1.1 million — came from Iowa Gun Owners, Minnesota Gun Rights, and Ohio Gun Owners, nonprofits managed directly by the Dorr brothers. According to their video, those three groups use Midwest Freedom Enterprises for their direct mail. Over that same five-year period, Iowa Gun Owners spent another $300,000 on management expenses, duties also performed by Midwest Freedom Enterprises, statements indicate.
Elections have also been a boon for the brothers’ mail business. In Iowa, candidates and political action committees paid $226,000 to Midwest Freedom Enterprises between 2010 and 2016, according to campaign finance records. At least about 30 percent — $67,000 — of those funds had been contributed to the Iowa Gun Owners PAC and other committees controlled by Aaron Dorr or his close associates.
In a video flagged by cleveland.com, Ben Dorr said he’s gotten a cut of the consulting fees paid by Minnesota Gun Rights. Tax returns show Minnesota Gun Rights spent more than $163,000 on consulting between 2014 and 2018. Consulting cost Ohio Gun Owners and Iowa Gun Owners an additional $109,000 over the same timeframe.
Minnesota Gun Rights once faced legal action from a state Republican lawmaker when the group continued to disseminate mailers bearing his signature after he’d ordered them to stop. That lawmaker later joined 15 of his colleagues in issuing an open letter denouncing the “fakers” and “fraudsters” who were trying to “take advantage” of gun rights supporters “while doing nothing” to actually advance the cause.
The IRS revoked the tax-exempt status for Minnesota Gun Rights in 2016 after it failed to file several years’ worth of tax returns. Nevertheless, Minnesota Gun Rights continued promoting itself as an active nonprofit. When confronted by reporters from a local Fox affiliate in 2019, Ben Dorr dismissed questions about the discrepancy as “fake news” — only to later acknowledge that Minnesota Gun Rights had indeed fallen behind. The group filed the missing returns, and its status was restored.
Throughout their existence, Iowa Gun Owners and Ohio Gun Owners have never reported paying for fundraising. At Minnesota Gun Rights, meanwhile, tax returns show that 90 percent — nearly $542,000 — of all the funds spent between 2016 and 2018 went toward raising more money, a share far exceeding industry standards. The Better Business Bureau has recommended that fundraising should account for no more than 35 percent of a nonprofit’s expenditures.
“What the Dorrs are doing goes far beyond what I would ever recommend to a client,” said Hubay, the Ohio attorney and nonprofit compliance expert. “501(c)(4) organizations are supposed to be about advocacy and lobbying for legislation, but the Dorrs seem to be focused on generating contributions and then funneling those resources to themselves through management fees and direct mail. It’s definitely suspicious.”
As tax-exempt social-welfare organizations under section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax code, the brothers’ groups are different from charities in that they can spend money swaying voters toward specific candidates, as long as that’s not their primary purpose. Groups must report the amount they spent on such activities to the IRS and may have to pay a tax.
Forms for the Dorrs’ groups show they have never reported engaging in political campaigns — even while they’ve solicited funds for the explicit purpose of boosting or defeating candidates. At Iowa Gun Owners, Aaron Dorr thanked donors for funding a $150,000 “election program” aimed at “targeted races across the state,” and in a separate instance, he complained about being betrayed by a state senator for whom his group had bought TV and radio ads, along with 12,000 pieces of direct-mail.
Hubay said the law is hazy about what activities constitute reportable political campaign expenses, “but the fact that they described their program as a political program and talked about targeting certain races is something that the IRS could look at as evidence of unreported expenditures.”
Meanwhile, the Dorrs keep finding ways to stoke right-wing rage.
On June 9, Chris Dorr issued an “Action ALERT” to Ohio Gun Owners email subscribers amid nationwide demonstrations against police brutality. Dorr’s missive misportrayed the calls for defunding police departments as a campaign by antifa and Black Lives Matter “thugs” to “savage our great nation with lawlessness.” He added: “I cannot begin to describe the anarchy, the social destruction that would ensue if America disbanded our police forces and let the left-wing nutjobs who run America’s major cities implement their leftwing ‘community-based social solutions.’”
Dorr went on to denounce Sandy Hook Promise — an organization founded by parents of the elementary school children slain in the 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut — for recent expressions in favor of police reform and racial justice. Dorr uged his readers to contact Ohio lawmakers and demand that they vote against a Sandy Hook Promise-backed bill to increase education on violence and suicide prevention in schools.
“Once you are finished, please also consider chipping in $10 or $20 to help us cover the continual costs of fighting back against these gun-control bills,” Dorr wrote. “Every penny you can donate is being put to use immediately in this fight to mobilize more and more Ohians to this fight [sic], and we gratefully appreciate your support!”