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Minnesota attorney general suing Fleet Farm, alleges retailer didn't stop illegal gun purchases

Keith Ellison in a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Oct. 5, claims Fleet Farm was negligent and aided and abetted the straw purchases by ignoring “hallmark red flags and warning signs that certain buyers were straw purchasers.” Fleet Farm denies wrongdoing.

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Global investment firm KKR announced it is acquiring Mills Fleet Farm and the two companies entered into a definitive purchase agreement.
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ST PAUL — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has brought a lawsuit against Fleet Farm alleging the retailer allowed purchasers to buy firearms for others illegally, with some of the guns ending up being used in crimes, including a St. Paul bar shootout that killed one bystander and injured 14.

During the pandemic, Fleet Farm repeatedly sold handguns to purchasers buying firearms for others who couldn’t legally do so themselves, Ellison alleged in a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Oct. 5, in Hennepin County District Court. In the course of 16 months, two purchasers bought at least 37 guns from Fleet Farm, the complaint claims. The practice is known as straw purchasing.

So far, two purchasers and their co-conspirators have been convicted of federal crimes, though Ellison is alleging in his complaint that Fleet Farm was negligent and aided and abetted the straw purchases by ignoring “hallmark red flags and warning signs that certain buyers were straw purchasers.”

“Gun dealers and retailers have an obligation under state and federal law that they must meet; this includes stopping straw purchases,” the attorney general said at a Wednesday news conference announcing the lawsuit. “They may only sell guns to people who are legally entitled to have them and may not sell guns to people they know or have good reason to know are going to give or resell them to another.”

A Fleet Farm spokesman said the company strongly disagrees with the claims in the lawsuit and is confident it will prevail against Ellison.

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"We comply with all applicable gun laws and devote substantial resources to training and compliance," the spokesman said. "It is disappointing that Attorney General Ellison filed his complaint without ever once talking to us."

The Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus questions whether the fair’s ban on firearms violates Minnesota state statutes and the U.S. Constitution.

In addition to firearms, Fleet Farm, a Wisconsin-based retail chain, sells goods such as outdoor gear, hardware, and clothing at locations across the Upper Midwest.

Under state and federal laws, felons, people with histories of perpetrating domestic violence and people with severe mental illness are barred from possessing firearms. But from June to October 2021, Jerome Horton bought 33 firearms from federally licensed dealers in the Twin Cities area, 24 of which were from Fleet Farm, and resold them or claimed they were stolen.

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Keith Ellison

One of those guns ended up being used in a gunfight at a bar just outside downtown St. Paul in October 2021, Ellison said. As the three shooters exchanged shots, a 27-year-old woman was fatally struck by a bullet and later died. Fourteen more were injured in the crossfire.

Fleet Farm said the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told the company at the time of the shooting that its employees had "done nothing wrong" and had complied with gun laws.

In another incident, a 6-year-old boy stumbled upon a handgun in front of his family’s home in September 2021, one which Ellison’s office said a shooter had likely discarded while fleeing the area. Horton had also purchased that gun from Fleet Farm, according to the complaint, which said many of the guns have not been recovered by law enforcement.

Sarah Elwood, the other convicted straw purchaser named in Ellison's complaint, purchased 13 guns from Fleet Farm in a 12-month period in 2020 and 2021, none of which have been recovered by authorities. On four occasions, Elwood bought more than one handgun at once, Ellison's office said in the lawsuit.

Ellison said while prosecutors and local law enforcement are tasked with tackling crime in their jurisdictions, this is the first time the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office is using a civil lawsuit to hold a gun seller liable for gun crimes and combat gun trafficking.

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While purchasers have been convicted and the alleged St. Paul shooter is set to face trial, Fleet Farm must also answer for its role, Ellison said.

“The actor that has not yet been held accountable under the law, the actor who sold the gun to Horton and set in motion this chain of deadly events is Fleet Farm, and I’m starting the process of holding them accountable today,” he said.

Asked by reporters if any other retailers could face legal action from the attorney general’s office, Ellison said he was not yet prepared to share whether other gun sellers might face lawsuits over straw purchases.

This story was updated at 4 p.m. Oct. 5 with additional comments from Fleet Farm and Keith Ellison  It was originally posted at 3 p.m. Oct. 5.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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