NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee's initiative to keep weapons out of the hands of those deemed by a judge to be dangerous to themselves or others has drawn a new player into gun politics in Tennessee — the American Firearms Association.
Lee made his legislative proposal after six people, including three 9-year-old children, were killed at a private Christian school in Nashville on March 27 by a former student who had mental health problems.
Lee received little support in the regular legislative session that ended last month and has called a special session for August.
A group called the American Firearms Association has taken notice and has declared its entry into the political scene in Tennessee, saying the Tennessee Firearms Association and the National Rifle Association have "failed miserably" to hold Lee's proposal at bay.
American Firearms Association President Chris Dorr said in a recent memorandum to GOP lawmakers that his Columbus, Ohio-based group is stepping in and also announced plans to create a new affiliate in Tennessee.
"Sadly, existing 'gun rights organizations' in Tennessee like the Tennessee Firearms Association and the NRA failed miserably in their duty to beat political asses in Nashville," Dorr wrote.
Dorr and his brothers have groups in at least 10 states under various names. They have no ties to the 28-year-old Tennessee Firearms Association, which pre-dates Dorr's national group.
"We ... aggressively prosecute backstabbing Republicans in the court of public opinion at election time — especially primaries," Dorr wrote.
He went on to call Lee a RINO, or a Republican in name only.
Asked about Dorr's criticisms, Lee Press Secretary Jade Byers didn't address them directly.
"We worked with the General Assembly to call a special session to continue a conversation about keeping Tennessee communities safe and preserving constitutional rights, and the governor looks forward to pursuing thoughtful solutions with the legislature in the months ahead," Byers said in a statement.
Both Chris Dorr, who also heads Ohio Gun Owners, and his brother, Aaron Dorr, executive director of Iowa Gun Owners, have come under fire for their hardball tactics.
The NRA appears to hold little love for either of the Dorrs, having referred to each of them in the past as a "scam artist."
Efforts to contact the NRA and the American Firearms Association through both groups' websites were unsuccessful.
The American Firearms Association's executive vice president is Patrick Parsons, who served as the first chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Northwest Georgia.
In 2017, both Chris and Aaron Dorr came under sharp criticism from Iowa Republican Rep. Matt Windschitl as he accused both men of lying about his omnibus gun bill, which included a "stand your ground" provision providing protections for gun owners acting in self-defense.
"Iowans are being lied to," said Windschitl, who is now Iowa House majority leader, according to video of the proceedings. "The average individual citizen out there that wants to see Second Amendment rights advance in this state, those are the people that are being lied to.
"They're being lied to by a man named Aaron Dorr. They're being lied to by his brother, his name is Christopher. They go out, and they tell people that they are the only people down here fighting to advance Second Amendment rights, they're the only ones that's working against those crooked politicians who are making those backroom deals."
While neither brother was registered to lobby on the bill, they were accusing him of "watering down your gun rights," Windschitl said.
Windschitl's bill passed into law. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.
In Tennessee, Lee wants lawmakers to pass a law dealing with orders of protection that would set up a judge-overseen process to temporarily remove firearms from people found to have mental health problems who could be a danger to others or themselves.
Critics, including Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris, an attorney, have denounced the effort as a red flag bill that could unjustly remove someone's firearms.
Lee has rejected that, saying his proposal is not a red flag law because of the due process provisions he is including.
Harris said in a Chattanooga Times Free Press phone interview that he's heard a "little bit" about Chris Dorr and his brothers.
"If it's the Dorr brothers, what I knew of them, they ran a bulk mail service, like if you wanted to send out 1,000 postcards during a campaign in an election cycle, these guys were based out of Iowa or something, and that's sort of what they did," Harris said by phone this week.
Harris said American Firearms Association supporters showed up this year in March or April. Chris Dorr posted a video on his website in which he accused Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, of preparing to come with a red flag bill. Johnson denied it.
Before that, Harris said, he'd never seen Dorr's group have a presence in Tennessee.
"I'm not aware of any other thing they've done other than show up and ask for money," he said. "If you're going to come in and ask for money like Gunowners of America or National Association of Gun Rights, you say, 'Hey, we're here. Here's how we're a little different.'"
The American Firearms Association also accused Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, of working on a red flag bill, lumping him in the RINO category.
Stevens, an attorney, did not respond this week to Times Free Press phone messages. Stevens pushed for bills to expand existing gun-carry laws during the 2023 legislative session. Most of them didn't pass.
After Lee announced he wanted lawmakers to pass an "order of protection" bill to allow a judge to remove firearms from people deemed a danger to themselves or others, Stevens moved one of his bills to 2024.
He told the Times Free Press at the time he did so because the bill opened up multiple provisions regarding firearms. Stevens said he was concerned proponents might try to hijack his bill as a vehicle for a red flag measure.
Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, one of the staunchest gun-rights proponents in the Senate, said by phone he was surprised by the American Firearms Association's criticisms of Harris as well as Stevens.
"I think he does a good job, I think they do a good job," Hensley said of Stevens and the Tennessee Firearms Association. "And I don't think John Stevens is a RINO.
"We don't get everything passed that we want to," Hensley said. "Any group can say what they want to say ... I pay attention to the people I represent more than any of these groups.
"I'm just opposed to any kind of red flag law even though the governor doesn't call it that, but that's what it is," Hensley said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said by phone that he is "purposely" staying away from "all these groups."
"I'm on Judiciary, and I've got to be fair in those deliberations if it comes to my committee," Gardenhire said. "I'm trying to stay as neutral as possible and not be biased one way or another."
In the waning hours of this year's regular legislative session, Gardenhire successfully moved to table a Democratic senator's effort to add an order of protection provision to a bill.
Gardenhire said he didn't understand why any gun-rights group would single out Stevens.
"If you had to pick three or four people in Nashville that were absolutely strong on Second Amendment, John Stevens would be right there at the top," Gardenhire said.