Chelgren Founded AR-15 Business Despite Domestic Violence Arrest

Others convicted of similar offenses have lost their right to own firearms under federal law

Mark “Chickenman” Chelgren, the GOP state senator from Ottumwa who made national headlines last week after NBC News revealed he falsely claimed to have received a business degree from a Sizzler steakhouse franchisee, also founded a gun manufacturing company despite a 2006 disorderly conduct conviction stemming from a violent assault on his stepson that could have prohibited him from possessing or selling firearms under federal law if the state flagged the incident for criminal background checks.

During the evening of Jan. 22, 2006, according to a criminal complaint filed in Benton County (embedded below) when he was a resident of Vinton, Chelgren was arguing with his wife when his 17-year-old stepson told him to quit cussing at her. In response, Chelgren told his stepson either “Let’s do this” or “Bring it on,” then approached him aggressively and “hit him multiple times and tackled him during the ensuing fight,” leaving him with “a swollen and bloody upper lip.”

Chelgren was arrested and charged with assault causing injury, a serious misdemeanor. Not long after, his stepson was granted a no contact order against him. Had Chelgren been convicted of the initial offense, or had the no contact order been permanent, his gun ownership rights in the state may have later been stripped under a 2010 domestic violence law that has been applied retroactively. But the no contact order was lifted in early April 2006, about a month before Chelgren pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct for fighting or violent behavior, a simple misdemeanor outside the law’s scope. He was ordered to pay a fine of $100, plus $62 in additional court fees.

Related article: Mark Chelgren's Greatest Hits
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That December in his new home of Ottumwa, Chelgren signed articles of organization to file with the secretary of state for the establishment of Fizzix LLC, a machine shop and urethane manufacturer through which Epic Defense, a business advertising custom-built AR-15s and other rifles, was launched. But even though he wasn’t subject to Iowa’s prohibitions against gun ownership, Chelgren could have run afoul of the 1996 Lautenberg Amendment to the federal Gun Control Act, which defines misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence more broadly as any state, federal, or tribal misdemeanor that “has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon” and is domestic in nature — for instance, if the perpetrator is a parent or guardian of the victim.

Records from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives show that Epic Defense has the proper federal firearms license for manufacturing guns. Curiously, however, the license was obtained by Chelgren’s wife, Janet Lee Chelgren, even though he is the owner of Fizzix LCC, or Fizzix Manufacturing LLC as it’s often called. According to a tipster, Chelgren’s wife “has nothing to do with the business, yet he’s selling guns under her FFL” because of his domestic assault charge.

The Informer has not determined whether this allegation is true (if you have more information about the Chelgrens’ business dealings, let us know), and it would be difficult to determine if Chelgren was denied a firearms license from the ATF because those records are not publicly available, according to Laura Cutilletta, an attorney at the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit that tracks state and federal firearm laws. (An ATF spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.) People convicted on misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges similar to Chelgren’s have been barred from possessing guns because of federal law.

“I have reviewed your claim to be a news site and believe it is false.”

But Iowa is not currently among (PDF) the 12 states that flag domestic violence convictions in their criminal history databases for federal background checks, and Cutilletta said the underreporting of domestic violence-related convictions in general remains a major problem for the protection of potential gun violence victims, especially when the charge is reduced to a lesser offense that may not be readily identifiable as one involving domestic violence. (A spokesperson with the Iowa Department of Public Safety did not immediately respond to a request for comment asking whether Iowa’s law was different in 2006 when Chelgren was charged.)

Chelgren did not help clarify the matter. “I have reviewed your claim to be a news site and believe it is false,” he said in response to a request for comment by email with a list of questions detailing information in this article. “I choose not to respond to your blog site.”

Even if the allegation were true, Chelgren wouldn’t necessarily be violating any laws by operating under his wife’s license, Cutilletta said. More likely, he’d be exploiting a loophole in federal law. “That happens all the time, actually,” she said. “I’m more familiar with it happening with dealers at the retail level, where somebody loses their federal license because they’ve done X, Y, or Z, and then their wife or their cousin or someone else just — they close their store and then they just reopen it, basically, in the same location with this other person acting as the FFL.”

As a state lawmaker, Chelgren has been a staunch advocate of scaling back gun restrictions. He’s supported unsuccessful efforts to allow school employees to openly carry firearms on school grounds and pass stand your ground legislation that would provide greater legal protections for gun owners who use deadly force, among others.

In 2017, he was one of 29 co-sponsors of Senate Joint Resolution 2, which, according to an explanation appended to the legislation, would have amended the state’s constitution to guarantee “that the right of an individual to acquire, keep, possess, transport, carry, transfer, and use arms to defend life and liberty and for all other legitimate purposes is fundamental and shall not be infringed upon or denied.” The explanation went on to state, “Mandatory licensing, registration, or special taxation as a condition of the exercise of this right is prohibited, and any other restriction shall be subject to strict scrutiny.”

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Fizzix LLC is part of a network of companies registered by Chelgren at 14470 Terminal Ave. in Ottumwa. The others include Frog Legs Inc., Chelgren’s wheelchair parts company; Essential Massage & Spa LLC; Fresh Perspective LLC, another massage and spa business which appears to have shared a separate location in Ottumwa with Essential Massage & Spa; Angstrom Precision Molding LLC, established in 2015 and described as a division of Fizzix Manufacturing and “an expansion of Mark and Janet Chelgren’s assemblage of existing competencies”; and Hexflex Technology LLC, which was incorporated in 2008 and dissolved in 2010. Epic Defense, which also goes by the name Fizzix Firearms and whose website has an email contact that uses the web address of Fizzix Manufacturing’s website, is not registered.

The Terminal Avenue property is currently listed on a real estate website as being for sale for $380,000, well above its 2016 assessed value of $214,793, which includes both the building and land. Another property owned by Chelgren at 117 W. Second in Ottumwa, where his massage and spa businesses have operated, is listed for $205,000, with business equipment negotiable. That property is valued at $118,968.

The current status of Chelgren’s companies is unclear, although all but Hexflex remain active according to the secretary of state’s records. In September 2015, Chelgren and his wife purchased a warehouse in the nearby city of Bloomfield’s industrial park from the Davis County Development Corp. for $216,000. Its 398 W. 230th St. address is listed in public databases as belonging to Fizzix Manufacturing, and Janet Lee Chelgren now has an ATF license to manufacture firearms there as well as at 14470 Terminal Ave.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.