Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is suing Fleet Farm, accusing the retailer of repeatedly selling guns to buyers who turn around and resell them to violent criminals who cannot legally buy the weapons themselves.
At least one of those guns acquired in such a "straw purchase" was used in a 2021 shootout in a St. Paul bar that left one woman dead and 14 bystanders injured.
At a news conference Wednesday, Ellison said Fleet Farm was "negligently selling firearms to straw purchasers, aiding and abetting these criminals, and contributing to gun trafficking in Minnesota by allowing guns to get into the wrong hands."
The lawsuit, filed in Hennepin County District Court, asks that a judge impose tight controls on Fleet Farm, including independent monitoring of firearm sales and more rigorous training of employees. There would also be random integrity tests.
Ellison said Fleet Farm disregarded "well known and blatant signs of straw purchasing" including multiple purchases of similar handguns, especially 9 mm guns, buying sprees over concentrated periods of time and staggered visits by straw purchasers to different Fleet Farm locations to elude multiple-sale reporting requirements. He said these are typical "red flags" of illegal gun trafficking.
"Fleet Farm had a duty under the law to spot and stop this behavior," Ellison said. "Nevertheless, Fleet Farm continued to engage in straw purchase transactions even though they knew or should have known that these customers were not making legitimate purchases for themselves and were likely to resell them illegally." It thus "profited from the unlawful sale of firearm" which were then transferred to criminals, he said.
Fleet Farm denied the allegations Wednesday.
"We strongly disagree with the Attorney General's lawsuit," Jon Austin, a spokesman for the retailer, said in a statement. "We comply with all applicable gun laws and devote substantial resources to training and compliance. It is disappointing that Attorney General Ellison filed his complaint without ever once talking to us.
"It's also worth noting that at the time of the tragic shooting in Saint Paul described in the Attorney General's complaint, we were told by the [U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] that our team members had 'done nothing wrong' and had complied with all applicable gun laws."
Attending Ellison's news conference were mayors Melvin Carter of St. Paul, Jacob Frey of Minneapolis and Maria Regan Gonzalez of Richfield, all of whom endorsed the lawsuit. Ellison said he was spurred to take on Fleet Farm after a call from Carter about the problem of straw purchases.
The lawsuit alleges three counts of negligence by Fleet Farm, one count of aiding and abetting and one count of being a public nuisance because it was endangering the safety of members of the public.
Fleet Farm has 17 stores in Minnesota, all of which sell firearms and ammunition, the suit said. The company is headquartered in Appleton, Wis.
Straw buyers convicted
Ellison's lawsuit cites two straw buyers recently convicted in U.S. District Court. Jerome Horton bought 24 guns from Fleet Farm over a four-month period from June to October 2021. Sarah Elwood purchased 97 firearms from nine different gun dealers in Minnesota between May 2020 and May 2021, including 13 from Fleet Farm.
The lawsuit said the sheer volume of Elwood and Horton's purchases put Fleet Farm on notice that they were not making bona fide purchases. Horton is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 22 in federal court in connection with the purchases. Elwood was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Sept. 14.
Six guns were transferred from Horton to Gabriel Young-Duncan; several were transferred again. Young-Duncan was charged Jan. 18 with making false statements in the purchase of a firearm. He was sentenced Wednesday afternoon in St. Paul federal court to 3 1/3 years in prison, a term below federal guidelines, followed by three years of supervised release.
His defense in a pre-sentence filing argued for a term "well below the guideline range" of slightly less than four years to just shy of five years, explaining that he "has taken full responsibility for his offense [and] expressed full remorse."
The prosecution pushed for a sentence within the guideline range because Young-Duncan "flooded communities in Minnesota with 33 firearms" including the one used in the St. Paul bar shooting a year ago. "
Guns end up on streets
A Glock 19 9mm pistol sold by Fleet Farm to Horton was found in the front yard of a south Minneapolis home by a 5-year-old boy. "It's too heavy to be a toy gun," Olin Norseng, now 6, told his mother, she recalls. Olin and his parents Michael and Sara Norseng took part in Ellison news conference.
Olin's father called police who came and said there was still a live bullet in the gun. "We're lucky," Sara Norseng said after the news conference. "He (Olin) could have pulled the trigger."
According to the suit, "the gun was likely discarded there by suspects involved in an earlier Minneapolis public shooting incident who then raced through the neighborhood as they fled the police."
Another gun, a Mossberg MC2C 9mm pistolFleet Farm sold to Horton on July 31, 2021 - which Horton then transferred to Young-Duncan - was linked to the Oct. 10, 2021, Truck Park shooting in St. Paul, according to the suit. The pistol was fired by Devondre Trevon Phillips, who had a prior felony conviction which made him ineligible to possess a firearm. During an exchange of gunfire between three different gunmen, 14 people were injured and 27-year-old Marquisha Wiley was killed.
Priscilla Lord, an attorney, who is representing Wiley's family, said after the news conference, that Ellison's lawsuit was "fabulous because it's really hard to get these gun sellers to stop selling to straw buyers."
Ellison is running for re-election in a close race with Republican Jim Schultz.
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this article.