In Depth

'Straw purchaser' jailed for gun trafficking — but most of her weapons remain missing

She held a legitimate licence to buy weapons. But Christina May Stover was not buying guns for herself.

Christina May Stover sentenced to 3½ years for 'one of most serious crimes one can commit'

Eleven of the 16 guns Christina May Stover purchased are still unaccounted for. She was sentenced for trafficking four weapons. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Christina May Stover bought 16 guns between September 2015 and March 2016. 

Ruger. Glock. Smith and Wesson. Even if you don't know the details of the weapons, you've likely heard the brand names.

Police seized four of Stover's firearms. Another was found in a "known drug house." Eleven are still unaccounted for — part of an arsenal of illegal weaponry police claim is at the heart of soaring rates of Lower Mainland gun violence.

Stover was what's known as a "straw purchaser": a woman with a legitimate licence to buy guns — but who actually purchased them for people who can't legally do it themselves.

Surrey Provincial Court Judge Robert Hamilton didn't mince words when he handed the 42-year-old a 3½-year jail sentence for gun trafficking just over two months ago.

"Trafficking in firearms, and particularly semi-automatic handguns, is one of the most serious crimes one can commit in Canada," Hamilton wrote.

"Semi-automatic handguns are easily concealed and are designed to kill, seriously maim, or critically injure other human beings ... These crimes committed by Ms. Stover amount to a complete abandonment of law-abiding behaviour by someone who has the legal authority to buy and possess these weapons. The seriousness of these crimes cannot be overstated."

'Straw purchasers'

Stover was sentenced at the end of May, but the decision was only recently made public.

She entered guilty pleas to four counts of trafficking in firearms — including three restricted semi-automatic handguns.

The security guard also pleaded guilty to breaching a bail condition that required her to turn in any remaining weapons — an impossibility, given the fact they were already out of her control.

A task force on illegal firearms found that an increasing number of weapons are being bought legally in Canada and then transferred to people without licences. (Christer Waara/CBC)

The case puts a human face on the phenomenon of straw-purchasing, a problem experts blame for the rising number of Canadian-bought weapons finding their way into the hands of criminals.

"Traditionally, we believed that the vast majority of crime guns are brought in from the United States. And that is no longer the case," said Irwin Cohen, RCMP research chair in crime reduction at the University of the Fraser Valley. 

"The majority of crime guns are domestically sourced."

Cohen sat on a 2017 B.C. illegal firearms task force which recommended a focus on the trafficking of weapons, as well as legislation designed to target straw purchasers by requiring sellers to keep records of firearm sales.

'Easy money'

A Maple Ridge gun store employee called police in March 2016 when Stover arranged to pick up three semi-automatic handguns. Suspicions arose because she had bought a rifle and 12 other semi-automatics during the previous six months.

Police set up a surveillance operation to follow her after she left the store. She met up with a co-accused at a restaurant and transferred the weapons to him.

Police say 'straw purchasers' are putting firearms in the hands of criminals responsible for a spate of gun violence in the Lower Mainland. (CBC)

The charges against Stover's co-accused were later dismissed following a charter challenge to the legality of a search of his home.

Stover also made her own constitutional challenge — to the mandatory minimum sentence of three years for gun trafficking. But Hamilton decided the gravity of the offences warranted a jail term of at least that length.

Stover is a single mother who lives with her 24-year-old daughter. She trained as a security guard in 1996 and has worked in that capacity for the past 20 years. She was living on income assistance at the time of the sentencing.

She's a caregiver for her ailing father and suffers from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to the judgment, Stover said "she was sorry for what she had done, that she made a bad mistake at a bad time in her life, and that the offences were 'easy money' and an easy way out of her difficulties."

But Hamilton found that Stover's conduct was criminal and driven by profit.

"This case does not involve a licensing mistake or a benign transfer," Hamilton wrote. "She transferred these guns with no regard for the risks associated with, and danger to the public in, the unlawfully trafficking in lethal weapons."

'Violent criminal activity'

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police decided to strike a committee to look at gun violence at their annual meeting last week in the wake of gun-related tragedies in Fredericton and a spate of Lower Mainland shootings.

Newly elected president Adam Palmer, Vancouver's chief of police, has said the organization wants to look at the impact of issues like straw purchasing before making any recommendations on legislation.

The task force Cohen sat on noted that Canada doesn't have national legislation requiring record keeping for sales of non-restricted firearms.

"Point-of-sale record keeping would help link straw purchasers and illegal firearms traffickers to crime guns," the report said. "It would disrupt and deter illegal transfers by increasing the risk of detection to straw purchasers."

An employee with the store that flagged Stover's purchasers said the shop was following the recommendations of the RCMP's national weapons enforcement support team.

As part of his deliberations, Hamilton considered a range of gun trafficking cases and penalties.

He cited another B.C. case and the words of a fellow judge to capture the severity of Stover's crimes: "Weapons trafficking promotes violent criminal activity. It is not merely an underground commercial enterprise. It is a serious offence that strikes at the heart of a civil society."

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.