FARGO — The Fargo Police Department has closed its murder investigation into the May 2022 shooting at a Mexican restaurant, but they’re still trying to determine exactly how the killer got the gun.
Malik Lamar Gill, 24, was a convicted felon prohibited from having the semi-automatic 9 mm Ruger pistol he used to fatally shoot his ex-girlfriend,
and wound her
then-7-month-old son at Plaza Azteca.
In tracing the trail of the gun, investigators have learned that it exchanged hands several times, including a man who regularly buys and sells firearms privately, before it reached Gill, according to police reports obtained by The Forum through a public records request.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives tracked the Ruger handgun back to Scheels in Fargo, a police report said. The sporting goods store sold the gun on March 11, 2020, to a man who buys and sells guns so often that he kept records of his transactions, the report said. Scheels did not return a message left by The Forum seeking comment for this story.
The man who bought the gun from Scheels was not a licensed firearms dealer, the police report said. Licensed dealers must run background checks on buyers before selling a gun, but that is not required of North Dakota residents who sell guns privately.
Buyer 1 sold the Ruger and a second handgun to a second buyer on April 5, 2020, for $300, the report said. The private seller told police he had an uneasy feeling about Buyer 2, so he looked up Buyer 2’s criminal record to find several narcotics convictions, according to the report.
Buyer 1 contacted the police about the sale, but officers determined Buyer 2 was not prohibited from owning a gun at the time of the transaction, the report said.
A person has to know they are selling a gun to a prohibited person in order to face criminal charges under federal law.
A second police report described police speaking with Buyer 2 about the gun. The man said he sold the pistol to a third buyer shortly after getting it from Buyer 1, according to the report.
Buyer 3 told police he had the gun until selling it to a fourth buyer one or two months before the shooting, the report said.
Police noted in the report plans to contact Buyer 4. The 127 pages worth of police reports connected to the murder investigation did not list further buyers.
Citing an ongoing investigation, Fargo police officials declined an interview to discuss their trace of the gun.
Fargo police are not investigating Buyers 1 through 4, who all live in Fargo, for any criminal charges connected to the case, said police spokeswoman Katie Ettish. As a result, The Forum is not identifying them.
At some point, Gill somehow obtained the Ruger handgun, and he took it with him to Plaza Azteca where he met with Garcia and her son on May 18, 2022.
The night before, Garcia broke up with Gill amid relationship issues that involved domestic abuse, according to family and police reports.
At the restaurant, Gill, Garcia and her son sat at a booth. After a while, Garcia grabbed her son and jumped up and Gill chased her into the kitchen before he fired the handgun several times, police said.
Garcia and Gill ran outside before Gill stole a nearby vehicle and fled, police said. Gill crashed the vehicle into a grove of trees near Hawley, Minnesota, after a high-speed chase with law enforcement officers, according to Clay County Sheriff Mark Empting. Gill shot himself with the gun and officers found him dead, authorities said.
Garcia died at a hospital two weeks
after the shooting, but her son survived.
In January 2021, Clay County District Judge Michelle Lawson sentenced Gill to 90 days in jail and five years of supervised probation after he pleaded guilty to second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon.
Court documents alleged Gill pistol-whipped someone and fired a handgun on May 2, 2020, in a Moorhead home while intoxicated.
His probation requirements included not possessing a gun or ammunition, the judge’s order said.
Gill also had an active warrant for his arrest on suspicion of simple assault and domestic violence in the days leading up to the shooting. Police reports based on interviews with people he knew indicated he was “not mentally OK” and suggested he wanted to kill himself.
Debate over background checks
The shooting has raised questions about whether requiring background checks for private gun sales could have prevented it.
Universal background checks have long been a subject of debate when it comes to finding ways to prevent gun violence. Proponents say allowing the sale of guns privately without background checks lets guns reach felons like Gill who aren’t supposed to have them. Gun rights advocates, however, say such checks only punish law-abiding citizens while violating Second Amendment rights.
Background checks have prevented people not allowed to own guns from purchasing them, said Adam Skaggs, vice president and chief counsel for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. FBI data obtained through a
Freedom of Information Act request
by the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety showed background checks prevented more than 300,000 firearm sales to prohibited people, including about 126,000 with felony convictions.
Background checks are a powerful tool, and those who can’t pass one will turn to private sellers, Skaggs said. Closing that loophole with universal background checks — he did note exceptions such as selling to family members — would prevent more gun violence, he said.
“In states that don’t require background checks, it’s very easy to buy a firearm without a background check,” he said, noting that the Plaza Azteca shooting “is obviously a clear illustration of why it is so important to require background checks on all gun sales, not just gun sales at a brick-and-mortar licensed gun dealer.”
The National Rifle Association says background checks don’t prevent criminals from getting guns because they don’t follow the law. It cited data from the U.S. Department of Justice. A
found 56% of 287,400 prisoners who possessed a gun during their crime had stolen it, and 43% obtained it from an underground market.
“Because this type of legislation only affects law-abiding (people), it has no impact on crime,” the NRA said in a statement to The Forum. “It’s a backdoor tactic gun control advocates want so they can create a gun registry.”
North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley said he was not surprised by the DOJ numbers. He said an average of 500 firearms are stolen from residents each year in the state.
Wrigley, a former U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said he has not seen compelling evidence to suggest background checks on private sales work. He called the Plaza Azteca shooting horrible and tragic, but he said he didn’t see a nexus where a background check would have helped that situation.
North Dakota prohibits people who are convicted of a violent crime or who are involuntarily committed to a hospital for mental health reasons from having guns. And Wrigley has
that would expand the list of people prohibited from owning guns.
That would include a fugitive from justice and people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. The same legislation would also set mandatory minimum sentences for violent crime and drug offenders if they have a gun during the commission of a crime, unless a
judge gave a written reason to not hand down the minimum punishment.
Wrigley said he is a strong Second Amendment and anti-gun violence proponent. He said his bill would meaningfully prevent gun violence by locking up those who commit violent acts with guns longer.
“What I’m not supportive of are measures that, at the end of the day, impose negatively on people’s right to exercise their constitutional rights in a law-abiding fashion and don’t have the offset of preventing gun violence,” he said.