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An investigation into protests against coronavirus restrictions in the US revealed a tale of coordinated political action by gun lobbies, and one Florida man who was trying to get ahead of the curve.
A DW investigation has found that protest groups in various US states against recent coronavirus lockdown measures were set up by conservative gun lobbyists. The coordinated effort seems to be driven by the apparent long-term aim of building a larger base of support for gun law relaxation.
This comes after thousands of people across the US organized online and started to demand an end to lockdown measures. Protest organizers claim on their Facebook pages that the lockdown restrictions are a result of "politicians on a power trip," who they allege are "destroying our businesses, passing laws behind the cover of darkness, and forcing us to hand over our freedoms and livelihood."
"Reopen America" has become the common name for these protests. Between April 8 and 16, at least 34 website addresses, such as www.reopeniowa.com or www.reopenpa.com for the state of Pennsylvania, were purchased.
These web addresses automatically redirect to pages on pro-gun sites. The gun lobby pages incorrectly claim that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and its resulting disease, COVID-19, are "far less deadly than the flu" and say, in text littered with typos, "President [Donald] Trump has been very clear that we must get America back to work very quickly or the 'cure' to this terrible disease may be worse that the disease itself!"
Astroturfing by the Dorrs
The registration of so many reopen website addresses in a short period of time led social media users to conclude that the campaign was "astroturfing" — the practice of making a campaign appear grassroots while withholding that it was organized by a single entity.
Of the 34 website addresses registered, only 16 are linked to active pages, with five tracing back to one family in the American Midwest, the Dorrs. These reopen websites were for Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio, each of which has laws allowing open carry of firearms with a permit.
These laws are not loose enough for the Dorrs, who are ultra-conservative pro-gun political campaigners active in a number of US states. Three Dorr brothers — Ben, Aaron and Chris — are especially involved in political campaigns criticizing the Republican Party for not being conservative enough on gun laws and on abortion laws. However, they are strong supporters of Trump.
Earlier this year, the Republican Party of Minnesota described them as "scam artists" who are "actually just building their own brand and raising money."
One of the brothers, Ben Dorr, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that these claims are "fake news," adding that his group, the Pennsylvania Firearms Association, would ramp up efforts in 2021. He said he set up the websites for the anti-lockdown protests from a "constitutional approach." This originalist approach strictly interprets the US constitution as it was understood in its 18th-century context, and remains a theme in the Dorrs' politics, with the anti-lockdown protests adding to their ultra-conservative messaging.
By flouting state lockdown rules and gathering in crowds, health experts worry that these protests could contribute to the skyrocketing cases of infection across the US.
There were nearly 870,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US and just short of 50,000 deaths as of early April 24, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The Second Amendment
Trump demonstrated support for the "Reopen America" campaign in three separate tweets on April 17, which read: "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!," "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!," and "LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!"
The Second Amendment — the constitutional right allowing private individuals to bear arms — is strongly supported by Trump. His administration allowed gun stores to remain open as "essential" businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a White House coronavirus task force briefing on the same day as the tweets, Trump offered further support for the anti-lockdown protesters: "These are people expressing their views," he said. "I see where they are and I see the way they're working. They seem to be very responsible people to me, but they've been treated a little bit rough," suggesting that Stay At Home orders in some states were too restrictive.
When asked about why he singled out Virginia later in the press conference, Trump said, "In Virginia, I'm going above and beyond what we're talking about with this horrible plague. They want to take their guns away."
Zooming in on Aaron Dorr
One of the Dorr family members, Aaron, is a pro-gun activist, who has been politically active for over 10 years across a broad range of political campaigns.
His firearms website, Second Amendment Politics, describes his work as "fighting for the Second Amendment in state legislatures including Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Wyoming, Wisconsin and more."
In an open letter to Trump in February 2018, his and eight other gun rights organizations took partial credit for Trump's election, writing "President Trump was elected, thanks in no small measure to the tireless efforts of grassroots gun owners." This letter was also signed by Ben and Chris Dorr.
Aaron Dorr is also linked to two websites targeting Republican Iowa State Senators Amy Sinclair and Dan Dawson. These websites use Trump-style name-calling, claiming that "Ragin' Amy Sinclair" and "Lyin' Dan Dawson" did not keep their campaign promises of supporting legislation on unrestricted carry of firearms. A video on one of these websites states that the current legal situation means prospective gun owners have to "beg" the state for a license.
Trumpdeclared his support for new concealed carry legislation in January 2018. The bill would make concealed carry of handguns available nationwide in every state, and each state would have to recognize the others' permits. Currently, this is regulated at state and local levels, rather than at the national level.
Unrestricted carry (sometimes referred to as permitless carry or constitutional carry) is already law in a number of US states, but not in any of the states for which the Dorrs have bought "Reopen America" domains. Based on the locations of these political campaigns and their previous political activity, it would appear that the Dorrs have a long-term goal of building a bigger supporter base for the gun lobby, using the coronavirus pandemic unrest as a vehicle.
The Dorrs did not respond to DW's request for comment.
Links to Facebook groups
Over 200,000 people are now part of Facebook groups supporting anti-lockdown protests run by the Dorrs across a number of US states.
Two groups in particular, "Reopen Minnesota" (previously named "Minnesotans Against Excessive Quarantine") and "Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine" shared near-identical descriptions on Facebook.
Their web addresses were registered two minutes apart on April 8.
The Dorrs remain active in both groups, where two of them — Ben and Matt, who keeps his online life relatively private — are listed as administrators. They, alongside Chris Dorr, also are administrators of other related groups.
Chris Dorr, one of the most active members in the groups, shared links to articles about the protests, posts asking users how the lockdown was affecting them and Facebook Live videos from the protests. His personal Facebook page bills him as "Political Director at Pennsylvania Firearms Association."
On his personal page, he shared memes and updates calling the coronavirus pandemic "a hoax." He also posted conspiracy theories alleging the US government is trying to take away people's freedom and claims that if "abortion mills" were closed for two weeks, the virus would have "saved more lives than it has taken." A picture post about him attending a Trump rally in 2018 was captioned with "[I] went on a Pilgrimage."
Commenters on his posts respond with sentiments such as "I just want to warm my SKS up," referring to a semi-automatic rifle. Another comment from April 21 read "I own a gunshop and business is better than ever!"
Protesters in Kansas demand that businesses be allowed to open up, people be allowed to work, and lives return to normal
Other Facebook comments on his profile incite violence against politicians and use language associated with the racist hate group the Ku Klux Klan, including the term "ride on knight [Eds. note: a colloquial name for a Klan member]." One comment specifically mentioned "tarring and feathering" politicians, a reference associated with the US Revolutionary War.
Facebook declined to comment on these specific points but said it continues to review content related to the lockdown protests.
"Unless government prohibits the event during this time, we allow it to be organized on Facebook. For this same reason, events that defy government's guidance on social distancing aren't allowed on Facebook," a company spokesperson told DW.
The Dorrs' digital empire
Links on these Facebook pages, and in the groups the Dorrs administer, left an entry point into investigating the sheer volume of websites they operate.
The connection between many of the Dorrs' websites is evidenced through information in public registration files, which includes the date and time they were purchased.
These files act as a digital equivalent of land registry paperwork for house ownership, ensuring a person or company with ownership of a web address are the only ones allowed to use it for a period of time before renewing, usually a minimum of one year.
For example, the "reopen" websites for Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota were registered in quick succession, indicating that they were bought in the same transaction. They also all share the same Google Analytics tracking ID, which is a unique code used to track webpage visits.
Websites for Iowa and Wisconsin also use this code, in addition to having been set up on the same day.
The active "reopen" websites owned by the Dorrs redirect to anti-lockdown protest pages, mostly on the Dorrs' pro-gun websites. On top of this, they look the same and contain similar, often identical text. Analyzing the inner workings of the website, namely the HTML code files, helps identify more connections to other pages and groups the Dorrs manage or people they collaborate with.
As such, the true scale of the Dorrs' political influence is difficult to measure. DW has found links to more pro-gun websites, anti-abortion websites and campaigns against state senators who do not loosen gun control measures.
This widespread online activity has contributed toward the impression that there is large-scale opposition to the lockdown measures. In contrast, nearly 70% of Republican voters and 95 percent of Democratic voters supported a national stay-at-home order, according to recent research by Quinnipiac, a nationwide independent public opinion poll.
Florida man buys website registrations to slow protests
After reading an article about the anti-quarantine protests on April 17, a man in Florida decided to take action.
Michael Murphy, a small business owner, made the snap decision to purchase over 200 website addresses, including other available "reopen" domains, as well as ones beginning with related terms, such as "liberate."
When Murphy realized they were being used to organize the anti-lockdown protests, he wanted to prevent more from being set up. "I ran into my study, and I bought all of the iterations of them," he told DW.
Murphy spent $4,000 (€3,678) of his own money to buy the web addresses. "I found out later that they were linked to all of these gun sites," he said.
While purchasing them, he messaged a friend who suggested offering the website addresses to progressive political groups. One message, shown to DW, read "I know they are going to be used for evil if you don't sell them to someone besides gun-toting idiots." Murphy also provided DW with a list of all of the website addresses he bought.
Discovery of the purchases sparked viral social media posts incorrectly accusing Murphy of astroturfing. Progressives started contacting him, blaming him for setting the protests up and accusing him of being a Russian spy.
"My phone started ringing. First it was a trickle, and then it was a torrent. As soon as I hung up, it started ringing again."
"I was accused of all kinds of different things, having a Nazi son, having a father who was a Republican lobbyist — my father's been dead for 20 years. I got a lot of really, really threatening phone calls, so I basically just unplugged the phone."
The domains registered under Michael Murphy's name remain inactive. "I have no desire to own them. My whole point of this was trying to do something good," he said.
"These are really powerful [website] names. This is a really powerful tool we've got here. When you've got every permutation in every state, you've basically got the keys to the kingdom."
Speaking of the protests, he told DW. "This is pure insanity. These people in the hospitals are in really bad shape, and the hospitals, they don't know what to do. The last thing we need is to reopen the country."
A country even further divided
The coronavirus crisis continues to ravage the US, with the country's leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, predicting more than 200,000 deaths and over 1 million infections over the course of the pandemic.
In a country where a majority of voters agree that stay-at-home measures should be in place, a small number of loud pro-gun activists give the impression that the country is even further divided.
As the US 2020 election season begins to ramp up, political actions like this could see a huge impact on the political landscape and outcome of the vote. With pressure from the vocal far-right political minorities for which Trump continues to show support, the question is whether this fringe support is enough to keep him in office.
With a president so connected to pro-gun activism and the increasing influence of far-right lobbies on White House policy, the Dorrs could achieve exactly the kind of loosened gun laws for which they have long campaigned - and for which they are now trying to exploit the coronavirus pandemic.
DW's Sandra Petersmann and Kyra Levine contributed to this report, as well as WJCT News reporter Brendan Rivers.