Minnesota gun group says it's a nonprofit, but was revoked

Image 1 of 3

Minnesota Gun Rights, a group that promotes itself as a registered nonprofit, had its tax-exempt status revoked in 2016 and hasn’t been reinstated, a FOX 9 investigation has found.

The group’s nonprofit status is the latest question to be raised about the group’s operations in Minnesota. For years, lawmakers and other pro-gun organizations have accused the organization of taking donations while doing little to advance the cause of gun owners.

Ben Dorr, the group’s political director, initially told FOX 9 that Minnesota Gun Rights is an active nonprofit and said questions about the issue were “fake news.” But later, he and his brother Chris acknowledged that they had not filed the proper forms with the Internal Revenue Service and would correct the issue.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office issued a Feb. 6 inquiry requesting that the group register with the office or cite an exemption.

“It has come to the attention of this office that Minnesota Gun Rights may be soliciting charitable contributions in Minnesota without being registered as required by the Minnesota Charitable Solicitation Act,” wrote Julie Brengman, the attorney general’s charities registrar.

Dorr brothers’ unique twist

Minnesota Gun Rights is part of a network of pro-gun groups operating in 10 states. The Dorr brothers – Ben, Chris and Aaron – are connected with at least six of them.

The brothers operate with a unique twist: they criticize Republican lawmakers for being anti-gun and say other pro-gun groups like the NRA are soft.

During a Feb. 2 rally at the Minnesota State Capitol, where Democrats have proposed stricter gun restrictions this legislative session, supporters held signs calling GOP state Sen. Scott Jensen a “Republican In Name Only” and comparing Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka with children’s TV host Fred Rogers.

The brothers solicit donations on the basis that they are gun owners’ best hope. A page on Minnesota Gun Rights’ website Saturday allowed people to join at membership levels ranging from $50 to $1,000.

”If we don’t fight for our Minnesota, we’re going to lose our Minnesota,” Ben Dorr said toward the end of Saturday’s two-hour rally. “And I’m going to fight all the way to the end, you guys. Are you with me?”

Chris Dorr launched the Minnesota group in 2013 before transferring control to Ben and moving to Ohio to launch a sister organization in that state.

Revoked in 2016

Minnesota Gun Rights’ website says the group is a nonprofit and a 501(c)(4). But the IRS revoked the group’s tax-exempt status in 2016, the agency’s website indicates.

The group does not appear on the IRS master list of nonprofits. Guidestar, a website that allows users to see nonprofits’ financial information, says Minnesota Gun Rights is not registered with the IRS.

Minnesota Gun Rights has brought in $220,000 a year, according to promotional materials about the group obtained by FOX 9. But, there is no evidence that the group has filed 990s, the annual form that nonprofits use to show how much money they’ve accepted and how they’re spending it.

“We do file 990s,” Ben Dorr told FOX 9 after Saturday’s rally. Told there was no evidence of that, he said, “Well, I think you should go look it up again and that stuff should all be on there very shortly.”

Dorr refused to say how much money he or Chris Dorr have been paid from the group.

“You’d have to take that up with the board of directors. We are not allowed to talk about any of this stuff,” Ben Dorr said, as his brother attempted to cut off the interview. “You’re standing here asking gotcha questions to try to push us into a corner. I guess that’s the only reason fake news comes out to gun rights rallies.”

‘It was a mistake’

Hours after the rally, Ben and Chris Dorr made a video on Minnesota Gun Rights’ Facebook page in an attempt to get ahead of this story.

“I know that Big Theo, Little Theo - he thought he had a great hit,” Ben Dorr said in the video. “Maybe this is too much, but I kind of feel like I know what Donald Trump feels like now.”

But the brothers also acknowledged that they had not filed the federal paperwork. They said they had fallen out of compliance when Chris Dorr transferred the group to his brother.

“It was a mistake. We didn’t file it in time. We should’ve kept up. Sometimes I don’t pay my bills on time and I’ve got to pay a $25 late fee. It happens sometimes,” Ben Dorr said in the video. 

The brothers said they would show where “every penny has gone to” in the coming weeks.

State Sen. Ron Latz, a leading proponent of tougher gun restrictions, said he questioned why the group was promoting itself as a nonprofit when it was not registered with the IRS.

“The donors certainly do [have a right to know]” said Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. “So do all Minnesotans.”

‘No one from that group has approached me’

Latz has proposed legislation requiring background checks on all gun sales and allowing police to seize guns from people if a judge issues a protective order. He questioned how much lobbying Minnesota Gun Rights was doing for gun owners about the bills. 

“No one from that group has approached me and as far as I’m aware, they haven’t put out any literature or flyers that I’ve seen,” he said in an interview.

Concerns about the group’s lobbying efforts have been raised for years, and many of the concerns have come from Republicans.

Sixteen state representatives -- five Democrats and 11 Republicans, including then-House Speaker Kurt Daudt -- wrote a 2015 letter to constituents and gun owners warning them that Minnesota Gun Rights was a “fake” group. The organization “relies on constant postal mailings, warning you of terrible gun control if you don’t send them money,” the lawmakers wrote.

“They’re not working with us, and they’re not working for you,” they said.

Ben Dorr said his group’s donors should not be concerned about how he was spending their money.

“They know very well how it’s being used. It’s being used to expose anti-gun legislators statewide,” he said.

70 hour workweeks, no salary

We know more about some of the other state gun groups where the Dorr brothers have connections.

Iowa Gun Owners brought in $298,000 and spent $371,000 in 2016, according to that group’s 990 form filed with the IRS. The biggest spending was on direct mail, advertising, management fees and postage.

Aaron Dorr, the group’s executive director, is listed as working 70 hours a week and earning a $0 salary – not only for 2016, but for 2015 and 2014, too.

In 2017, a Republican Iowa state representative questioned the group’s operations.

“Folks, you’ve been lied to. Please don’t be lied to anymore. It is time for his scam to end,” state Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, said on the House floor.

Windschitl then asked fellow lawmakers if Aaron Dorr had personally lobbied them to support a so-called “Stand Your Ground” bill that pro-gun Republicans were about to pass.

“Anybody?” Windschitl asked, looking around. “Not a hand.”

In Minnesota, Ben Dorr registered to be a lobbyist in May 2017. He spent $12,407 lobbying in the first five months of 2018, according to online records that provide limited insight into Minnesota Gun Rights’ spending.

The reported expenses were either for “postage and distribution” or “media advertising.” Dorr listed no expenses for “preparation and distribution of lobbying materials,” “telephone and communications,” or support staff salaries.