Attorney General Ellison sues Fleet Farm for negligently selling firearms to straw purchasers

Alleges Fleet Farm stores aided and abetted straw purchasers, should not have sold guns given warning signs of gun trafficking

Gun Fleet Farm sold to straw purchaser traced to October 2021 Truck Park shooting in Saint Paul where Marquisha Wiley was killed, 14 bystanders injured

October 5, 2022 (SAINT PAUL) — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison today filed a lawsuit against Fleet Farm for 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.  

As gun trafficking and gun violence surged in Minnesota during the COVID-19 pandemic, firearms dealer Fleet Farm repeatedly sold handguns to straw purchasers — people who illegally purchase guns for others who cannot legally purchase guns themselves, such as people convicted of felonies, people with a record of committing domestic violence, and people with mental illness. Fleet Farm sold at least 37 firearms to two straw purchasers over the course of 16 months, often selling multiple guns either in single transactions or over short periods of time.  

One of the guns Fleet Farm sold to straw purchaser Jerome Horton was fired in a large-scale shootout in a Saint Paul bar on October 10, 2021, that ended in the death of 27-year-old Marquisha Wiley and injuries to 14 bystanders. Another gun Fleet Farm sold to this same straw purchaser was found by a 6-year-old boy in front of his family’s home on September 6, 2021, where the gun was likely discarded by suspects fleeing another public shooting incident. Most guns Fleet Farm sold to straw purchasers remain unrecovered, risking additional harm. 

“It’s my job to help protect Minnesotans’ safety, pocketbooks, and dignity — and you can’t have a real a real conversation about public safety in Minnesota unless you’re talking about the proliferation of guns,” Attorney General Ellison said. “Gun dealers and retailers have a duty to be the first line of defense against people who try to illegally obtain guns and provide them directly to criminals or blindly resell them for profit on the black market. But instead of fulfilling their legal obligation to detect and prevent straw purchases, Fleet Farm ignored multiple red flags: they took money from straw purchasers and looked the other way. They put their own profit over Minnesotans’ safety. 

“The results are as tragic as they are predictable: guns that Fleet Farm sold to straw purchasers made their way into the hands of criminals, and one was used in a public shootout that left one person dead and 12 wounded. Many of these guns remain on the street and continue to pose a threat to public safety,” Attorney General Ellison continued. 

“While law enforcement investigates and solves crime and local prosecutors prosecute crime, we all have a role to play in stopping gun trafficking and creating safer communities. For the first time in Minnesota, I’m using the power of the Attorney General’s office to hold a gun retailer accountable using the tools of a civil lawsuit. To any retailers like Fleet Farm that are turning a blind eye to straw purchasing and feeding gun trafficking and gun violence, you’re on notice. I am watching and I will hold you accountable,” Attorney General Ellison concluded. 

The lawsuit filed today in Hennepin County alleges that Fleet Farm ignored hallmark red flags and warning signs that certain buyers were straw purchasers and sold guns to these buyers anyway, rather than refusing to make such sales as Fleet Farm should have done. Fleet Farm’s conduct contributed to gun trafficking in Minnesota and harmed Minnesotans. The lawsuit asserts claims against Fleet Farm for negligence, negligence per se, negligent entrustment, aiding and abetting, and public nuisance. 

Two straw purchasers to whom Fleet Farm sold guns, along with several co-conspirators, have been convicted of federal crimes related to their illegal purchases. In addition, the individuals who unlawfully possessed and fired guns sold by Fleet Farm to straw purchasers also face criminal charges — at least to the extent that the guns Fleet Farm sold to known straw purchasers have been recovered, since most of those guns remain at large. The parties in this gun-trafficking chain who had not yet been held accountable are the gun dealers who negligently sold guns to these straw purchasers in the first place. 

In the lawsuit, Attorney General Ellison asks for injunctive relief, including strengthened oversight of Fleet Farm’s operations and increased training to prevent sales of guns to straw purchasers, as well as monetary relief, including disgorgement of Fleet Farm’s profits from sales to straw purchasers. 

Using civil law enforcement to create safer communities 

This lawsuit is another in a string of civil enforcement actions that Attorney General Ellison has taken to create safer communities in Minnesota.  On September 15, 2022, Attorney General Ellison announced the opening of a joint civil investigation with the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office into whether two Minneapolis businesses are maintaining or permitting a public nuisance on their properties after numerous acts of gun violence occurred on their premises. 

In October 2019, Attorney General Ellison announced his office was suing notorious Minneapolis landlord Stephen Meldahl for deceiving tenants about his “eviction for profit” scheme and illegally barring them from contacting city building inspectors about their living conditions. In November 2021, a court agreed after trial that Meldahl knowingly and in bad faith violated the rights of 267 families who rented from him. The court cited conditions of “Biblical plague proportions” that tenants lived in, and later awarded the Attorney General’s Office more than $1 million in attorneys’ fees. 

Fighting gun violence by fighting ghost guns 

Attorney General Ellison has also taken several actions to halt or regulate the proliferation of “ghost guns” — untraceable lethal weapons that can be made at home from weapons-parts kits available to anyone online. 

In addition, just last week — on September 30, 2022 — Attorney General Ellison joined a coalition of 11 attorneys general in a letter to the CEOs of American Express, Mastercard, and Visa, praising them for adding a new merchant category code for gun and ammunition sales, which will help authorities track and prevent gun violence, notably mass shootings, before they occur.