Ellison Accuses Fleet Farm of Negligent Firearm Sales
Fleet Farm signage in Oakdale, Minnesota Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com

Ellison Accuses Fleet Farm of Negligent Firearm Sales

A lawsuit filed by the state alleges the retailer sold firearms to people who later resold them to perpetrators of major shootings, including a fatal St. Paul bar shooting last year.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is suing Appleton, Wisconsin-based retailer Fleet Farm, alleging the company negligently sold guns to people who resold them to perpetrators of crimes.

In a lawsuit filed in Fourth Judicial District Court on Wednesday, Fleet Farm is accused of selling at least 37 firearms to two “straw purchasers” over the course of 16 months. Straw purchases are people who illegally purchase guns for others who cannot do so legally, such as people convicted of felonies, people with a record of committing domestic violence, and people with  a documented history of mental illness.

In addition to negligence, the lawsuit accuses Fleet Farm of aiding and abetting, and public nuisance. It asks the judge to require strengthened oversight of Fleet Farm’s operations and increased training to prevent sales of guns to straw purchasers. It also asks for monetary relief in the form of Fleet Farm giving up any profits from sales to straw purchasers.

The lawsuit alleges Fleet Farm ignored three main “red flags” indicating firearms were being sold to straw purchasers: multiple purchases of similar handguns (especially 9mm caliber), buying sprees over concentrated periods of time, and staggered visits to different Fleet Farm locations to elude multiple-sale reporting requirements.

“These are all hallmark ‘red flags’ of illegal gun trafficking by straw purchasers,” the lawsuit states. “Nevertheless, Fleet Farm continued to engage in straw purchase transactions even though Fleet Farm knew, or should have known, based on the circumstances of these transactions and Fleet Farm’s training, that these customers were not making bona fide purchases for themselves.”

In a statement responding to the lawsuit’s allegations Fleet Farm said: “We strongly disagree with the Attorney General’s lawsuit. 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.”

Ellison noted in a news release announcing the lawsuit that one of the guns Fleet Farm sold was fired in the October 2021 shootout at a Saint Paul bar that left 27-year-old Marquisha Wiley dead and 14 others injured. That gun was sold by Fleet Farm to straw purchaser Jerome Horton. Another gun Fleet Farm sold to Horton 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.

Fleet Farm’s statement also addressed this portion of the lawsuit. The company wrote: “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 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that our team members had ‘done nothing wrong’ and had complied with all applicable gun laws.”

The lawsuit identifies Sarah Elwood as the other straw purchaser. She, Horton, and several other co-conspirators, have been convicted of federal crimes related to their illegal purchases, according to the lawsuit.

Horton pleaded guilty to falsely representing himself to purchasers in March of this year. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 22.

Elwood, along with two other co-conspirators, also bought and sold firearms from Fleet Farm, according to the lawsuit. In a plea agreement, Elwood pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements during the purchase of a firearm. In September, she was sentences to serve 18 months in prison for this charge.

Individuals who unlawfully possessed and fired guns sold by Fleet Farm also face criminal charges, though many remain at large, according to the lawsuit.

A former U.S. congressman, Ellison is up for re-election as attorney general in November. His opponent, Jim Schultz, has criticized Ellison for the current size of the attorney general’s criminal division. Schultz has argued that the unit should be much larger to tackle “serious crime issues in our state,” Axios reported last month.