A trio of brothers who for years have confounded Minnesota lawmakers with their die-hard views on gun rights have emerged at the center of a national network behind a series of protests against state shutdown orders to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
The brothers Aaron, Ben and Christopher Dorr, with roots in Minnesota and Iowa, have helped promote protests stretching from New York to Minnesota, where about 800 demonstrators urged on by President Donald Trump rallied outside the governor's residence in St. Paul on Friday.
Recent protests across the country have varied in size from a few dozen in some states to rallies of several thousand in Michigan and Washington state. The Dorrs have not been connected to all of them.
But the family has been linked to a host of Facebook groups in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and other states that have tallied more than 200,000 followers. Some of the Facebook pages and websites affiliated with the Minnesota protest redirect to pages for groups like Minnesota Gun Rights and sister organizations. That is one of more than a dozen groups operated by the Dorr brothers, who are asking shutdown opponents to join their gun groups and donate up to $1,000 to show support.
"I'm the gun guy and I'm, well, I'm the quarantine guy," said Ben Dorr, political director of Minnesota Gun Rights, in a video of the protest against Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. "We want our freedom, we want our rights, we want our country back. We want our state back. We want it opened up and we are here to fight for it."
The Dorrs' work setting up protests and Facebook groups largely in states led by Democratic governors reflect an effort to portray their movement as grass-roots and organic. Yet recent polling suggests that a majority of Republicans and Democrats alike support social distancing and stay-at-home measures to mitigate the spread of a virus that has so far killed 200 people in Minnesota and nearly 50,000 nationwide.
Though private, their Facebook groups are replete with examples of inaccurate and misleading information about the coronavirus, including posts predicting the government will force people to get vaccinations and videos saying health officials are intentionally inflating death numbers associated with the virus.
Ben Dorr declined an interview for this article, responding instead with an e-mail accusing the Star Tribune of advocating for "socialist policies of destruction" and treating "great Americans with derision."
But while the brothers have sought to spur conservative opposition to state-mandated business closures, they have long aroused suspicion of Republican lawmakers and gun rights advocates who would be expected to be in favor of their cause.
Republican lawmakers and party officials in Minnesota have alleged that the family's main focus is on fundraising and not to help craft legislation.
"They don't lobby," said state Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, a frequent sponsor of pro-gun legislation yet a past target of the Dorrs' incendiary and often personal barbs. "They don't interact with people. They don't send suggestions in to help make bills better. They don't do anything other than take videos, post to Facebook and do the elaborate scheming that they do to make money off of donors who think that they're actually donating to something that makes a difference."
The IRS stripped Minnesota Gun Rights of its tax-exempt status in 2016, and the group failed to file Form 990s through 2019. But the agency has since notified the group that they are again exempt from federal income tax, according to documents filed with the Minnesota Attorney General's Office.
Last year, the AG's office notified Minnesota Gun Rights it discovered that the group was soliciting charitable contributions without being registered in the state. The group has since applied to be registered. According to documents it submitted, Minnesota Gun Rights spends almost all of its revenue on fundraising expenses. The brothers follow the same playbook as their allied groups in Iowa, Ohio and elsewhere by not taking a salary and instead sending money back to a for-profit printing company affiliated with the family.
Last week's protest caught the attention of Jason Lewis, the former congressman and conservative talk radio host running against U.S. Sen. Tina Smith. Lewis recently embarked on an RV tour urging the reopening of business in Minnesota and greeted supporters at the protest throughout the afternoon. In an interview, he said he learned of the demonstration through "word of mouth" but that he was unaware of the Dorr brothers' work.
"I thought it was peaceful," Lewis said of the rally. "It didn't come anything close to an Occupy Wall Street or an antifa rally like when the president came to town [last October]. Lives are being destroyed by imperfect information at this point, and the situation on the ground doesn't warrant it."
Dorr first titled his Minnesota Facebook group "Minnesotans Against Excessive Quarantine," similar to his "Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine" page. But a day after the protest, he renamed it "Reopen Minnesota," using the same name as a group started earlier this month by David Strom, a local conservative writer and former political operative.
Strom said he envisioned his page, which also drew tens of thousands of members, as an online forum to harness growing discontent with the economic effects of Walz's stay-at-home order. Strom wanted to take the movement online because he agreed with social distancing guidelines and did not want to imperil his or others' health. He has since rebranded his effort "Essential Minnesota."
"The big distinction between us and the Dorr brothers is that they capitalize on the anger and the frustration and they stoke it," Strom said. "That's their business model. They see anger boiling up, they get in front of it, collect as many names as possible, collect as much money as possible and move on."
Although polls show bipartisan majorities of Americans favor continuing shelter-in-place strategies to protect themselves from the coronavirus, the job losses and other economic impacts of the business closings have fueled a new wave of activism among some Republican, Tea Party and far-right groups.
"This is a GREAT TIME to make die-hard conservatives out of previous fence-sitters!" Chris Dorr tweeted Thursday.
J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University's Program on Extremism, has been analyzing the mobilization of the various protests online and elsewhere. She wrote on Twitter this week that "GOP money is seeking to amplify both a self-destructive rage and a protest plan that were already in place when they threw money at them."
"They're fanning the flames but they didn't build this fire," she wrote.
Though generally unwilling to talk to news reporters, the Dorr brothers have occasionally chimed in on the coverage after the fact.
"It's no surprise that the liberal media can't believe that these wonderful drive-in rallies are the work of every day Americans who just want their lives, jobs and freedom back!" Ben Dorr tweeted this month. "They're used to seeing paid, left wing activists. That's ok! The Dorr Brothers are happy to help."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.