Katrina Wickett was 23 in the summer of 2007 when her life spiraled out of control. The father of her children moved out of their Bangor apartment, leaving her with a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old and a newborn.A few months later, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services placed her children in the custody of her parents. By fall, she was without work, without a relationship and without her children, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor.

She did what many lonely women of her generation do — sought companionship over the Internet. Christopher Riley popped into her life. By mid-October, he and his friends James Damon and Levar Carey had talked Wickett into buying three guns for them at a Bangor pawnshop.

Wickett, now 25, is one of a growing number of women around the country being used as “straw buyers” to purchase guns for people, almost always men, who could not buy them legally due to a felony or domestic violence conviction.

The guns Wickett bought were recovered almost immediately due to her quick arrest. The men she bought them for, however, belonged to Boston-area gangs and intended to use them as part of a drug operation, according to court documents.

While violent gun crime rates in Maine traditionally hover among the lowest in the nation, trafficking in guns — buying them in Maine and transporting them across the border where some end up used in crimes — appears to be a growing trend.

• In 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced 97 guns recovered by Massachusetts law enforcement agencies to purchases in Maine. That’s up from 65 the year before. The bureau notes that not all guns used in crimes are traced and not all guns traced were used in crimes.

• In 2008, ATF traced 19 guns recovered by Connecticut law enforcement agencies to purchases in Maine, up from 15 the year before.

• Between 2005 and 2007, a New Brunswick man paid a few men in Maine to purchase more than 60 firearms from several licensed dealers in the state. The man smuggled the guns into Canada where gun laws are very strict. One gun later was used in a homicide in Canada.

When asked about the statistics, U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby acknowledged some trafficking in Maine guns is occurring.

“Clearly there are some guns from Maine ending up in other locations,” Silsby said Tuesday. “Whether that translates to an epidemic or a crisis or a even a problem is a different question. I think if you look at the guns located in other states, in most instances, they originated in that state.”

‘Straw buyers’

Wickett’s case, although unusual in Maine, marks a growing national trend, especially in border states. A recent article in USA Today reported that as the demand for weapons in Mexico has increased, according to the Houston office of ATF, the recruitment of women without criminal histories to buy guns has increased.

At least a dozen women in the past two years have been suspects or cooperating witnesses in cases filed in U.S. District Court in Houston. In Texas, they have been grandmothers, pregnant women and single mothers. Wickett is typical of defendants in the handful of cases prosecuted over the past few years in Maine — single and lonely, according to Silsby.

“We’ve seen a number of these cases recently,” Silsby said. “A lot of times the person completing the straw purchase is not doing it knowing they are buying a gun for another person who intends to use it to commit a crime.”

The only way an individual may purchase a firearm for another person is as a gift, she said. If purchasers lie on the application to buy a gun from a licensed dealer by stating they are obtaining it for themselves when they aren’t, they can be charged with a federal crime.

Silsby said that her office has been “very aggressive” in its enforcement of illegal purchasers.

“In the [federal prosecutorial] District of Maine, we are very engaged in ensuring federal firearms prosecutions.”

Beyond Maine’s border

Illegal gun traffic in New England pales in comparison to states on the Mexican border, but Canadian officials have said that the drug trade in that country is fueling a demand for handguns. All guns in Canada must be registered and who may possess a handgun is rigorously controlled.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police earlier this year told the Christian Science Monitor that of the 2,637 guns used in crimes in Canada, about 75 percent were traced to the United States. A major reason for that is cost. Guns are much less expensive in the United States than in Canada. A firearm that costs $150 in Maine could sell for $500 or more on the black market in Canada, Canadian officials said.

Nearly three years ago, police in New Brunswick recovered two handguns, several rifles, a pound of cocaine, a large amount of marijuana and $120,000 in cash. The recovered guns turned out to be just a few of the more than 60 firearms that Andrew Porter, 39, of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, smuggled between late 2005 and September 2007 from Maine into Canada.

One of those guns was used in June 2007 in the fatal shooting of a drug buyer by his dealer in an Ottawa motel, according to court documents. The shooter’s assistant died from a gunshot wound in the motel parking lot. The weapon was recovered and traced to a gun shop in Brewer, even though the serial number had been filed off.

Eventually, it was traced to Porter, who used a handful of male buyers in Maine to purchase more than 50 handguns from licensed firearms dealers from Calais to Brewer. Porter used the more rural Milltown crossing in Calais, according to one of his accomplices, and hid the guns under his seat. Because he crossed the border frequently, Porter was familiar to American and Canadian border patrol agents.

Catching and prosecuting gun smugglers takes cooperation on both sides of the border. Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith said that once a month, he along with federal and state officials meet with their Canadian counterparts to share intelligence.

“Being a border county,” Smith said recently, “we’ve really got to count on these people for assistance. Gun smuggling is an increasing problem because of the strict gun laws over there.”

Since 1995, Canada has required that all guns, including rifles, be registered. To obtain a license, an applicant must pass a firearms safety test and undergo a rigorous background check, according to information on the RCMP’s Web site about the Canadian Firearms Program.

Massachusetts connection

Massachusetts also requires all guns be registered, and the difference in gun laws between the northern New England states and Massachusetts has caused some in the Bay State to harshly criticize the Pine Tree State’s gun laws.

Data compiled by ATF traced 97 of the 1,534 guns it recovered in 2008 in Massachusetts to Maine. Maine was second after Massachusetts, where 290 of the guns originated.

The issue of guns being imported to Massachusetts to get around that state’s strict licensing law drew media attention in 2006 when Boston officials and the nonprofit group Stop Handgun Violence unveiled a billboard on the Massachusetts Turnpike that criticized gun laws in other states. The billboard, which was replaced in August 2008, singled out Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Georgia as states, along with 29 others, which allow private owners to sell guns without criminal background checks of potential buyers.

A new billboard has been erected in the same spot by the same organization criticizing the federal law that allows people to sell firearms to individuals at gun shows without running background checks. In Maine, gun owners may only sell to other Maine residents in private sales. A Maine driver’s license is accepted as identifi-cation in most sales, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In July, the Boston Herald decided to stop distributing well-known Maine publication Uncle Henry’s Swap or Sell It Guide in Roxbury and Dorchester, Mass. The Boston Globe reported that public safety officials in the Bay State believe lax gun laws in Maine and other states allow criminals to circumvent Massachusetts’ strict gun-ownership requirements by buying guns privately.

Efforts to reach Uncle Henry’s publisher Kevin Webb to determine if he had found a new distributor in the Boston area were unsuccessful.

Warning issued to sellers

Under the federal Project Safe Neighborhoods program, Maine’s U.S. Attorney’s Office distributed information to gun sellers through Uncle Henry’s and other publications to help prevent the private sale of guns to individuals who plan to use fake identification to show they are Maine residents, and plan to use the weapons in criminal activities in other states and Canada.

A private seller who sells a gun improperly can be prosecuted. The U.S. Attorney’s Office offers a gun seller’s kit that describes the laws in detail. Silsby said Friday that her office also supported a law passed earlier this year by the Maine Legislature which allows private sellers to have a background check run on potential buyer by a licensed dealer for a fee.

For those caught smuggling, buying or possessing guns illegally, the penalties can be stiffer under the federal sentencing guidelines than they might be under similar state statutes. The length of a federal sentence is increased for the number of guns purchased or smuggled, if the weapons are related to drug trafficking and ac-cording to the length and nature of a defendant’s criminal history.

Porter, the Canadian smuggler, is serving a 2½-year sentence in a U.S. prison. The men who purchased guns for him were sentenced to between six months and 2½ years in federal prison. All of them will be on supervised release after they finish their prison sentences. In addition, Porter is expected to face deportation and be barred from entering the United States.

Wickett is serving an 18-month sentence in federal prison. Riley, 26, is serving a sentence of 7½ years, and Damon is serving six years and eight months.

Carey is scheduled to be sentenced in January in federal court in Bangor. Because federal prosecutors maintain that he has three prior convictions for either violent felonies or serious drug law violations, Carey could be considered to be an armed career criminal and face a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in federal prison.

On the Web: Project Safe Neighborhoods, Office of the U.S. Attorney, http://www.justice.gov/usao/me/psn/index.html.