Wyoming Gun Owners

GILLETTE — Multiple Campbell County Republican legislators and primary candidates are bucking against an outspoken pro-Second Amendment group after a bevy of political attacks targeting incumbents and other candidates ahead of this month's election.

State Sens. Michael Von Flatern and Ogden Driskill, former Speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives Tom Lubnau and others are rebuking the claims and question the motivations of Wyoming Gun Owners following a steady flurry of social media posts targeting them and other politicians. The campaign has only been elevated by the upcoming Aug. 18 primary election.

The lawmakers, who say they have been unfairly targeted, accused Wyoming Gun Owners of being misleading, distorting the truth, using political scare tactics, failing to disclose its finances and drudging up political discord for the financial gain of the family that runs the group.

"I can't support any group that comes in, no matter how noble their cause, and uses defamation and comparisons between people," Driskill said. "They've really run close to slandering people and use really rough-and-tumble tactics to try to force their way into passing legislation."

The Wyoming Gun Owners is staunchly pro-Second Amendment and has levied social media attacks against various candidates throughout Wyoming that have gained traction.

In Campbell County, it has interjected into the ongoing race for Senate District 24 between Von Flatern and his opponent, Troy McKeown, as well as the contest between Rep. Bill Pownall who is facing Bill Fortner and John Robertson for House District 52.

Von Flatern has become one of the main targets for the group, which claims he's a "liberal," "Democrat," "snake" and "the biggest swamp monster."

"Michael Von Flatern has been in the Legislature since 2005 and they're attacking him as this horrible, gun-grabbing liberal," Lubnau said. "I ask everyone in Wyoming, in the last 15 years, how many people have come for your guns? And the answer is nobody."

Lubnau said the tactics are to spread information that is reckless at best and flat-out untrue at worst, with the group's claims depending on others who either believe the information without vetting it or just assume it's on point because they want it to be. They then share the posts with their friends and communities, he said.

When contacted for an interview about its finances and the backlash from some Wyoming Republican candidates, Wyoming Gun Owners requested to receive the questions from the News Record in writing. After receiving the questions, the group declined to answer.

"Go ahead and print what you like," was the reply. "We will respond to the article after you go to print. Looking forward to it, in fact."

The organization did comment for a recent story in the Casper Star-Tribune.

"Wyoming Gun Owners has always been a Wyoming-run member-driven organization, and it always will be," Aaron Dorr said said in a text to the newspaper. "Ogden is mad because we are exposing his dirty financial deals in Cheyenne and because we are exposing his Swamp buddies like Michael Von Flatern, one of the state's leading voices for mental health gun control.

"Frankly, if we didn't have moderate politicians howling during the primary season, we would not be doing our jobs right!"

In a series of Facebook videos, Aaron Dorr, who manages the group and is affiliated with a network of other similar pro-gun rights organizations in other states, attacked Von Flatern consistently while bolstering his opponent, McKeown.

One video calls Von Flatern "the worst back-stabbing, lying-to-your-face piece of trash" in the state Senate. During a side-by-side video comparison with McKeown, Dorr dissected Von Flatern's voting history as anti-gun.

Von Flatern dismissed the video's validity as misleading and an attempt to stir up controversy for monetary donations.

"They are using me to garner more money from their members," Von Flatern said, adding that he's not anti-Second Amendment.

"I would not oppose gun ownership," he continued. "I never have. But yet they created this thing (that) I am 'the biggest swamp rat' or something like that, because they want money to be sent to them.

"I have never opposed safe gun ownership."

Lubnau explained it is not uncommon for a "pro-gun" bill to be voted against by a "pro-gun" senator because of language in the bill or amendments that may have been added to it. Those nuances are not always obvious on the surface. They also mean that after a long tenure in the Senate, it could leave many senators with ostensible contradictions on their records, he said.

"They call themselves a no-compromise gun rights organization, and so if you try to amend your bill, amend their bill, you are against gun rights," Lubnau said. "What happens is if you do a bill that says 'Pro-gun Bill' and then it has just really ridiculous language in it ... and you vote against that bill, then you can be labeled 'anti-gun.'"

While Von Flatern is a self-described moderate Republican, Driskill considers himself as more conservative.

Driskill, who is not up for re-election until 2022, has been in office since 2011 and is vice president of the Senate.

Despite his claim that he has "passed more gun legislation than any other senator in Wyoming for the last 10 years," during that time he also has become a favorite target of Wyoming Gun Owners, much to his consternation.

"They're calling us liberals," Driskill said. "I think anyone who knows who all of us are know it's laughable that anyone one would even dare call us a liberal. This guilt by association and name-calling is a bad way to do politics."

Driskill has attempted to defend himself on Facebook by clarifying his voting record and engaging with other users on the organization's Facebook page, particularly on posts that directly mention him.

"They don't go after most of the people on raw facts," Driskill said. "They use slander and innuendo to try to impinge their character."

McKeown said he did not ask for Wyoming Gun Owners' support and is not, nor ever has been, a donor to the group. But as a candidate the group views favorably, he defends its lobbying tactics as a free speech issue.

"I'm going to go back to the First Amendment," McKeown said. "I think they have the right and the freedom to do that. And if there is slander in it, he should sue them. Or if there truly are lies, why aren't they talking to a lawyer instead of a newspaper?"

As a red state with a deep record of pro-gun legislation, Lubnau said that being for the Second Amendment is a prerequisite to entering Wyoming politics. While the extent to one's fervor may vary, anti-gun politicians are virtually unheard of in the state.

"If you talk to any of these candidates, they will all tell you they're pro-Second Amendment," Lubnau said. "These attacks are just distortions."

Which draws into question why gun rights, an issue most candidates are aligned closely on, is being used to drum up conflict among Republicans in local election races.

"If you disagree with someone in Wyoming, you go and talk to them," Lubnau said. "This toxic kind of post-a-video-and-run method of politics is just wrong."

Earlier this year, Pownall pulled what ended up being a controversial bill in the Senate, House Bill 59, that drew comparison to the "Fix NICS" bill that was previously voted down. The Fix NICS bill would have required mental health records to be submitted to a federal database and could have affected some people's ability to legally buy firearms.

Opponents of the Fix NICS bill, including Wyoming Gun Owners, argued that it could potentially threaten gun ownership without due process of law and equated it to a "red flag" law.

"They said I was out to take gun owners' rights away," said Pownall, who served as Campbell County sheriff for 12 years before being elected to the House. "That was a complete lie. That's not even what the bill was about."

Pownall's sponsorship and subsequent pulling of the bill made its way into one of the organization's videos that painted him as anti-gun and propelled his opponent, Fortner, based off of his Wyoming Gun Owners survey answers.

"There's a push to get rid of the incumbents and whatever they have to do to get that false narrative out there, they're going to do it," Pownall said. "They're putting out a false narrative and they're known for not telling the truth."

Although the organization is tied to an out-of-state family, McKeown said that does not delegitimize their cause and message.

"There are plenty of out-of state organizations, other than WyGO, interested in our local elections," he said. "And we would be silly to say there's not."

While he said he has never been a member and is not officially endorsed by the group, McKeown is supported by Wyoming Gun Owners in its online content nonetheless. He filled out the group's survey — an optional questionnaire that is sent to Wyoming candidates to gauge their Second Amendment stances — and said that the support came based on his responses.

However, the survey and how its results are used by the organization has been criticized by others.

"If you don't fill out their survey, you are automatically deemed anti-Second Amendment," Driskill said.

The survey asks a series of yes or no questions about gun legislation.

Some of the candidates supported by Wyoming Gun Owners do not have a voting record, as they have not held political office before. Their survey answers are used in the Facebook videos as on-the-record evidence of their Second Amendment stances.

Von Flatern compared the survey to similar tax pledges that some political candidates elect to complete. They become complicated to uphold when it comes to parsing the more complicated language of an actual bill, compared to a yes or no question, he said.

"Their survey says I'm not only going to vote on a bill based on its title, but I'm going to sponsor legislation based on its title," Driskill said. "I refuse to be beholden to a group such as this that they'd have the power to tell me how I'm going to vote on a bill."

The founding of Wyoming Gun Owners dates back to 2010, but its roots began out-of-state before then.

In 2009, Aaron Dorr started Iowa Gun Owners, a similarly focused pro-Second Amendment group founded in the brothers' home state.

Anthony Bouchard, who is now a Wyoming state senator, founded Wyoming Gun Owners in 2010. Since Bouchard entered the Senate in 2017, the group has been run by Dorr, who along with brothers Chris and Ben, has ties to more than a dozen similar pro-gun nonprofits in states throughout the country. The brothers also have been recently connected to several anti-quarantine protests earlier this spring, The Washington Post reported.

Each of the gun rights groups they are involved with in other states focus on Second Amendment legislation using a similar playbook to that drawing criticism in Wyoming. Their websites follow a noticeably similar template and aesthetic while pushing a "no compromise" stance on gun rights.

"For them, you have to separate the cause they have — which is a good one — from the organization itself, which is out-of-state people that use out-of-state tactics to try to bully people into a position and that's wrong," Driskill said.

Rep. Matt Windschitl is a Republican from Iowa who vocalized distrust of Dorr on the Iowa House floor in 2017 where he accused Dorr of running a "scam." The National Rifle Association has echoed that, calling Aaron and Chris Dorr "scam artists" for their efforts in Iowa and Ohio, respectively.

Aaron Dorr, who stars in some of the recent Facebook videos under scrutiny, is listed as the organization's treasurer in its Secretary of State filing where the group is registered as a nonprofit.

"They're really not a Second Amendment organization," Driskill said. "They're a shell that gathers money from Wyoming residents, and takes the money out of state to non-residents."

As a 501©(4) nonprofit, it is technically a "social welfare" organization and allowed to raise money and lobby politically. Under this classification, the group is not required to disclose donor information.

"They're a fundraiser," said Micky Shober, who is a former Campbell County Commissioner and is running for House District 31. "Honestly, it's difficult to find where their money goes."

While the group is required to file with the IRS, its most recent filings available online do not contain much information. However, they do state that gross receipts have not exceeded $50,000 in a year, something that multiple candidates suggest may be misleading.

"It's hard to imagine they're boots on the ground and under 50 grand. That wouldn't even pay the wages of one person," Von Flatern said. "If they are under 50 grand it says that they are lying about how much they make."

Lubnau also questioned where the money was allocated and how much of it the group was actually receiving.

"How much does it cost for somebody to stand in front of a whiteboard with a cellphone, make a video and post it? What's their overhead in making a video a day?" Lubnau asked. "Where's the rest of the money going? I don't know, I've never seen it."

Fortner views it as no different from other lobbying groups and PACs affecting politics in the state.

"Everybody's got an agenda in Cheyenne and the Second Amendment is the Wyoming Gun Owners' agenda," Fortner said.

While Wyoming Gun Owners' voice has reached many in this year's primary, how successful the efforts has yet to be seen.

"Whether it's going to sway the good people of this county, I don't know," Pownall said. "I hope it doesn't. I hope they look into those allegations and find out that they're actually not true and that they are lying and that's about all I can say."

McKeown is not all too certain what the effect may ultimately be.

"I think they speak to some people who really like their message and I think they speak to others who really don't like their message," McKeown said. "I think there are people who really like their approach, and obviously there are people who don't. So, to tell you the net difference would be speculation."

The effectiveness of the name-calling and target campaigns may be determined on Election Day, but whether that brand of politics is here to stay in Wyoming will take longer to suss out.

"This is about as brutal as I've seen them be," Driskill said. "They've used some really out-and-out mistruths in it and I guess we'll see if the people buy it or they don't. They only way I can really judge is to see who wins and loses these elections."

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