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Attorney General Ellison adds claim against Fleet Farm for violating the Minnesota Gun Control Act

Court also authorizes Attorney General to seek civil penalties, fees, and costs from Fleet Farm; affirms Attorney General’s broad civil powers to protect Minnesotans from unfair and unlawful conduct

June 3, 2024 (SAINT PAUL) – U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim has ruled that the Attorney General’s Office may amend its complaint against Fleet Farm to add a claim under the Minnesota Gun Control Act for Fleet Farm’s sales of firearms to straw buyers, who resell these firearms to people who are prohibited from having them.

Judge Tunheim also upheld the Attorney General’s ability to seek civil penalties from Fleet Farm, which can be as much as $25,000 per violation of the Minnesota Gun Control Act or public nuisance law, and to recover costs and fees from Fleet Farm in connection with the Attorney General’s lawsuit.

“I appreciate the decisions of the Court to allow my Office to bring claims against Fleet Farm and any business we believe has violated the Minnesota Gun Control Act,” said Attorney General Ellison. “Yes, individual offenders who perpetrate gun violence must be held accountable under the law, but so too must businesses that sell firearms to straw purchasers and threaten Minnesotans’ safety. As your Attorney General, I will continue to hold accountable those responsible for gun violence and trafficking, using all the tools available to me.”

In January 2024, the Attorney General’s Office moved to add a claim to its lawsuit against Fleet Farm that Fleet Farm violated the Minnesota Gun Control Act. The Minnesota Gun Control Act prohibits federally licensed firearms dealers, like Fleet Farm, from “transfer[ring] a pistol or semiautomatic military-style assault weapon to a person who has made a false statement in order to become a transferee, if the transferor knows or has reason to know the transferee has made the false statement.” The Attorney General’s Office also sought to recover civil penalties, fees, and costs under the Attorney General’s general enforcement statute, Minnesota Statutes section 8.31. Magistrate Judge John Docherty granted the State’s motion in a March 5, 2024 order.

After Fleet Farm objected to Judge Docherty granting the State's motion to add a claim to its lawsuit, District Court Judge Tunheim affirmed on May 23, 2024. Judge Tunheim rejected Fleet Farm’s arguments that the Attorney General’s primary civil enforcement statute — Minnesota Statutes section 8.31 — is limited to “consumer protection” claims. Judge Tunheim held that the Attorney General may bring claims that regulate “business, commerce, or trade.” Judge Tunheim also explained that this holding aligns with the December 2023 Minnesota Supreme Court decision in Findling v. Group Health Plan: “Just as the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that section 8.31, subdivision 1 is not limited to laws concerning fraud, the Court concludes that the statute is also clearly not limited to laws concerning consumer protection.”

Judge Tunheim rejected Fleet Farm’s arguments that the Attorney General may not civilly enforce statutes that provide for criminal liability: “[T]he statute’s plain language does not limit the Attorney General’s investigative or enforcement powers under section 8.31 depending on whether the underlying statute, in this case the [Minnesota Gun Control Act], contains a civil cause of action.”

Fact discovery closes on August 2, 2024, and the case is scheduled to be ready for a jury trial by May 9, 2025.

Background on Attorney General Ellison’s lawsuit against Fleet Farm

In October 2022, Attorney General Ellison sued Fleet Farm for five claims related to Fleet Farm’s repeated negligent sale of firearms to straw purchasers despite obvious warning signs. The lawsuit alleges that Fleet Farm negligently sold firearms to straw purchasers, aided and abetted these criminals, and contributed to gun trafficking in Minnesota by allowing guns to get into the wrong hands.

Two straw purchasers to whom Fleet Farm sold guns have been convicted of federal crimes related to their illegal purchases. Fleet Farm sold at least 37 firearms to these two straw purchasers over the course of 16 months, often selling multiple guns in single transactions or over very short periods of time. One of the guns Fleet Farm sold to a straw purchaser was fired in a large-scale shootout in a St. Paul bar on October 10, 2021, that ended in the death of a 27-year-old woman and multiple injured bystanders. Another gun Fleet Farm sold to this same straw purchaser was found by a six-year-old boy in front of his family’s house, where the gun was likely discarded by suspects fleeing from another public shooting incident. Most guns Fleet Farm sold to straw purchasers remain unrecovered, risking additional harm.

Attorney General Ellison’s lawsuit seeks to hold Fleet Farm accountable and obtain injunctive relief, including strengthened oversight of Fleet Farm’s operations and increased training to prevent sales to straw purchasers. The suit also seeks monetary relief, including disgorgement of Fleet Farm profits from sales to straw purchasers and newly added claims for civil penalties and recovery of attorney fees and costs.

On June 27, 2023, District Judge Tunheim rejected Fleet Farm’s motion to dismiss the State’s case, holding that all of the State’s claims were plausibly alleged and were not preempted by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (“PLCAA”)— a federal law granting the firearms industry protection from litigation. The district court subsequently denied Fleet Farm’s motion to certify this order for appeal.

On March 12, 2024, Magistrate Judge Docherty ordered during a court hearing that Fleet Farm must provide additional discovery to the State, including records of firearm transactions where someone purchased 4 or more handguns during a 14-day period, records of employee evaluations and discipline related to firearms sales.

 

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