Guns and grief: Who'll stop the killing? Defining moment: Reaction to a high school student's shooting and a change by a key senator may signal a switch to tighter handgun regulation.

January 21, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith

Chuckie Marsh died in a savage trade: a life for a name brand coat.

He died Dec. 14 on a high school campus as he waited to board a bus at the end of the day. He watched as two men in knit hats and bandana masks arrived guns in hand, a surreal yet commonplace moment.

As one of the gunmen grabbed for a $300 Eddie Bauer coat worn by one of Chuckie's schoolmates, a shot was fired. The bullet went through the coat, hitting Chuckie Marsh in the chest.

He died an hour later in a Prince George's County hospital. He was 17.

"He was just starting to get tall. He was even teasing me about it. He'd say, 'Daddy, I can almost look you in the eye.' He was developing into quite a young man," his father recalled.

Charles Lewis "Chuckie" Marsh Jr. had a great smile and a charming, man-child maturity that filled his parents with pride and wonder. A senior at Oxon Hill High School, he went to classes every day. He was polite to his teachers. He earned mostly As and Bs in demanding courses. His classmates looked up to him -- more than a kid dares to believe.

No one does everything perfectly, but neighbors and school administrators and friends said Chuckie came close.

Charles Marsh Sr. and his wife, Thomasene, bought their son a pair of Timberland boots for Christmas and invited him to wear them right away as the weather turned cold. He could wait, he said.

Becomes an example

The present was there on Christmas morning but Chuckie was not.

So, instead of a computer engineer or a teacher or a bus driver, he becomes for the moment an example, an object lesson, a cautionary tale, the latest of many -- the 20th juvenile homicide of 1995 in Prince George's County, nine more than the previous year.

Oxon Hill High lost a role model, a kid of independent mind whose solid academic work was well-known among his classmates.

"His death illustrates that, increasingly, none of us is safe," said Vincent DeMarco, director of the Washington Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. The sheer proliferation of handguns in society, he said, raises the odds that model students, model parents, model teachers -- and everyone else -- is a potential victim.

Mr. DeMarco has recruited Chuckie's sister, Jerilyn, and

Chuckie's parents to speak in favor of several bills recently offered by Gov. Parris N. Glendening for this year's General Assembly.

The legislation would require a license for any new handgun purchase, restrict those purchases to no more than one a month and outlaw secondary or "straw" purchases in which an authorized purchaser buys a gun for a criminal or mentally defective or minor.

Those who resist tighter restrictions on guns say no law can save the Chuckie Marshes of America. To hear of gunmen operating on golf courses, in shopping malls, around babes in arms is to feel the flood tide of weapons rising and to wonder if the level can be lowered.

When the Glendening program was announced, Robert McMurray, chairman of the Maryland Committee Against the Gun Ban, said he opposed it: "Criminals get their guns on the black market. No gun owner I know would knowingly sell a gun to a criminal."

So the debate will go on with the usual participants offering the usual arguments -- with some variations, to be sure.

Last week, state Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, a staunch opponent of gun control legislation who has successfully blocked many such measures over the years, announced that he would support parts of the Glendening proposal: the limit on commercial sales to one per month and the controls on private sales.

Prospects for these measures improved with Mr. Baker's turnaround. Indeed, Mr. Glendening's election in 1994 offered new hope to the control forces because he ran as a gun control advocate.

And, of course, the streets continue to yield painful stories demanding some sort of action. In the aftermath of Chuckie's death, parents complained that school officials had failed to provide sufficient security -- and the principal at Oxon Hill High was reassigned.

'They're not God'

The Marsh family counsels against scapegoating and easy answers.

"We can't elect officials and sit back. They're not God. We all have to do our part," said Chuckie's sister, Jerilyn, 24, a clerk-typist at the U.S. Department of State.

Charles Marsh, 50, a Metro bus driver for seven years who also spent 23 years with the U.S. Postal Service, objects to the fateful observation that his son was just unlucky -- in the wrong place at the wrong time, as they say. If a high school campus is the wrong place, he suggests, the shooters and fashion thieves have won.

But he and his son knew the threat well enough and did what they could to resist.

"We said, 'Chuckie, mind your own business. Get off the bus and come home.' He was doing things he knew were the right thing. He didn't do any of that wild stuff."

Nor much of the brand name stuff: Chuckie's own coat was a run-of-the-mill parka he'd owned for four years and was just growing into.

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