The informal name of the charge federal officials filed against Michael Garant on Wednesday is "lying and buying" — making false statements on a background-check form during a gun purchase, then handing the weapons over to another person.
In this case, authorities say, Garant handed over a 12-gauge shotgun to Ray Kmetz, who used it to shoot two New Hope police officers on Jan. 26. The officers survived, and Kmetz was quickly shot and killed by other officers.
Garant, 42, who had been friends with the 68-year-old Kmetz for 15 years, most likely knew that Kmetz was prohibited from owning a gun, authorities say. Kmetz had been civilly committed for mental health problems and found incompetent to stand trial.
"Background checks are only as good as the accuracy of the information collected," U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said. "Honestly answering questions about the intended recipient of a firearm is an important component of responsible gun ownership and key to public safety, which is why it is a crime to act as a straw purchaser."
Garant, who admitted to federal investigators that he was "not honest" when he filled out the background form, was released on an unsecured bond Wednesday and will next appear in court Tuesday.
Federal straw-buyer charges are fairly uncommon. In November, Luger's office charged members of two rival Minneapolis gangs for receiving illegal guns used in some of 15 killings or shootings.
The federal charges against Garant were filed five days after the Hennepin County attorney's office declined to charge him, saying Minnesota law on "straw" buyers is "detailed" and hard to prove. The office hasn't filed charges citing the state law since 2012.
Sheriff Rich Stanek said he was befuddled by that decision. "We absolutely had state law supporting us," he said. "We just need enforcement of current law."
The state statute on straw buyers reads that "whoever recklessly furnishes a person with a dangerous weapon in conscious disregard of a known substantial risk that the object will be possessed or used in furtherance of a felony crime of violence is guilty of a felony."
Stanek said he understands that the county attorney has prosecutorial discretion, but he believes the Legislature's intent in creating the law supported charges against Garant.
Stanek and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said that although they may disagree on whether the law was applicable to Garant, neither thinks it needs changing.
"This case wasn't befuddling to me," Freeman said. "There are many criminal justice matters that really cry out for resolution in this upcoming legislative session. Changing the straw-buyer statute isn't a high priority of mine."
Stopping it at the shop
In many cases, illegal purchase of guns can be prevented before a crime is committed.
For instance, Bill's Gun Shop & Range in Robbinsdale, considered the largest independent gun shop in the metro area, has an identification policy that would have prevented Garant from obtaining guns for Kmetz.
Kmetz was the highest bidder for three shotguns from K-Bid Auction in Maple Plain, which were actually bought by Garant in August at Full Metal Gun Shop in Princeton, authorities have said. Garant informed gun shop owner Troy Buchholz that he used the alias "Ray Kmetz" during the online auction because he didn't want people contacting him from K-Bid's site, according to court documents.
At that point, the policy at Bill's Gun Shop would have shut down any transaction. Some shops have a similar policy.
Before starting a background check, Buchholz said, he unsuccessfully tried to contact Kmetz. At the shop, Garant produced a driver's license to verify his identity. A National Instant Criminal Background Check run on him came back "clear."
One of the forms Garant completed as part of the check contained the following question: "Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form? Warning: You are not the actual buyer if you are acquiring the firearm(s) on behalf of another person. If you are not the actual buyer, the dealer cannot transfer the firearm(s) to you."
Garant responded "yes." He paid $659.29 in cash for three shotguns, one of which was a Stoeger Model 2000 12-gauge shotgun. Its serial number was later obliterated, but the county crime lab was able to raise it and the guns were tracked to the Duluth Police Department, which had sold them to K-Bid.
A 'classic straw purchase'
Other than the federal charge, there is no law directed specifically at straw purchases, said Robert Schmidt, Minnesota spokesman for the federalBureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Sellers unsure whether they can legally transfer a purchased gun can have a background check run on the buyer at any of the state's hundreds of shops designated as "Federal Firearms Licensees."
In addition, he said, the ATF works closely with gun shops to identify potential straw buyers, training sellers about regulations and having them monitor multiple purchases by a single person. Nationwide, the FBI runs more than 340,000 background checks each year.
John Monson, owner of Bill's Gun Shop, said any clerk can stop a gun purchase if he or she believes something "smells fishy." But that doesn't happen often, he said.
Buchholz's shop has a very good reputation, Monson said. What happened there — sale of a gun later used in a crime — is every shop owner's nightmare, he said.
"This was a classic straw purchase," Monson said. "If this guy couldn't get arrested and charged, who could?"