Minnesota sues Fleet Farm over ‘dangerous’ firearm sales

A group gathered in front of a table with microphones on it
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on Wednesday announced that the state has filed a civil lawsuit against Fleet Farm.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Updated 3:30 p.m.

Attorney General Keith Ellison said Wednesday that the state has filed a civil lawsuit against retailer Fleet Farm, alleging that stores in the state missed red flags and negligently sold firearms to people who intended to resell them illegally.

In its complaint, the state alleges that four Fleet Farm retailers in Minnesota sold a total of 37 firearms to two people within a 16-month period. And those weapons were later involved in crimes around the Twin Cities, including a fatal mass shooting in 2021 at Seventh Street Truck Park in St. Paul, according to federal court filings.

State and federal laws require retailers that sell firearms conduct background checks before a purchase and certify that buyers are purchasing guns on their own behalf. 

The state alleges that the company knew it was selling to straw purchasers or should have known because buyers exhibited red flags such as buying many handguns at once, making multiple purchases in short periods of time and purchasing at multiple Fleet Farms stores to evade reporting requirements.

“Today, we’re taking action against dangerous and illegal gun trafficking,” Ellison said. “Fleet Farm had a duty under the law to spot and stop this behavior. Nevertheless, Fleet Farms 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.”

Ellison said the state is seeking monetary relief from Fleet Farm, as well as more training for employees and additional oversight for its firearm sales.

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A spokesperson for Fleet Farm said the retailer was disappointed to see Ellison file the lawsuit without consulting them first. And he disagreed with the allegations against the retailer outlined in the complaint.

“We comply with all applicable gun laws and devote substantial resources to training and compliance,” spokesman Jon Austin said in a statement. “We are confident that we will prevail in this matter.”

City and county officials, not the state, has jurisdiction to bring criminal charges against the retailers, Ellison said. And he said other gun dealers could also face civil action from the state if they engage in similar sales practices.

“We need to go upstream with civil tools as well and turn off the spigot of illegal gun trafficking,” he said. “And I want to commend the retailers who are doing the right thing and meeting their duty to stop straw purchasing. We don’t want to generalize, it’s not everybody. Many gun retailers are abiding by the law and we thank them. But for the ones who are not, they have to stop and get in line and obey the law.”

The mayors of Minneapolis, Richfield and St. Paul said they’d asked Ellison to help limit the number of illegal gun sales in the Twin Cities. And they, along with family members of those affected by gun violence in the region, applauded the effort to limit alleged trafficking.

Sharrie Jennings, whose grandson 10-year-old Ladavionne Garrett, Jr., was shot in the head in North Minneapolis and is still hospitalized, urged additional steps to prevent gun violence.

“We have to make sure that our babies are safe. They want to go outside and play, they want to enjoy life. No kid should have to go outside in their front yard and find a gun,” Jennings said.

In its complaint, the state alleges that Fleet Farm stores sold two dozen firearms to Jerome Fletcher Horton, Jr. over a four-month period in 2021. Horton then went on to sell the firearms to several people who weren’t allowed by law to possess them, according to a federal affidavit.

One was used in the Seventh Street Truck Park shooting, which killed one and injured 14 others. A six-year-old Minneapolis boy discovered another gun after it was discarded on his front lawn. The boy told his father about the weapon and police recovered it.

Horton pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy to make false a statement in the purchase of a firearm.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said gun retailers involved in the straw purchasing pipeline should face repercussions for the Seventh Street Truck Park shooting and other instances of violence.

“The fact that guns purchased like that could cost us the life of a 27-year-old in our community is just offensive. And it’s unacceptable,” Carter said. “We see the shooters being held accountable, we see the purchasers being held accountable but until we break the profit chains that allow … some regional manager to make a quarterly bonus off of selling 33 firearms in a matter of just a couple of months we’ll continue to be behind the eight ball.”

The retailer also sold 13 firearms to Sarah Jean Elwood over a 12-month window starting in 2020 who was later convicted. Elwood resold the firearms through a series of illegal straw purchases and is serving prison time for misconduct related to straw purchasing.