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-millimeter 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 between June and 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 in federal court Oct. 22 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, and 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 presentence 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 9mm Glock 19 pistol that Fleet Farm sold 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's 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 9mm Mossberg MC2C pistol that Fleet Farm sold to Horton on July 31, 2021 — which Horton then transferred to Young-Duncan — was linked to the Oct. 10, 2021, Seventh Street Truck Park bar shooting in St. Paul, according to the suit. The pistol was fired by Devondre Trevon Phillips, who had a prior felony conviction that made him ineligible to possess a firearm. During an exchange of gunfire among 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."
Increase in gun violence
The suit cites federal ATF figures showing that there has been a sharp increase in gun purchases tied to crimes in cases where a crimes occurred within six months of a gun's sale. The number rose from 314 to 842 from 2019 to 2021. The suit also said that gun deaths spiked to a 20-year high in Minnesota of 570 deaths in 2021, including 163 homicides and 390 suicides.
Black and Native American communities in Minnesota have been disproportionately affected by gun violence, the suit said. Black Minnesotans age 15-34 have a firearm homicide rate that is 28 times higher than white males in the same age group.
"Overall, Black Minnesotans are 12 times more likely to die by gun homicide than white Minnesotans," the suit said, "while Native Americans are 10 times more likely [to] die by gun homicide."
Ellison is running for re-election in a close race with Republican Jim Schultz.
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this article.