A mother's loss moves a senator to indifference

This Just In...

March 27, 2000|By Dan Rodricks

WALTER Baker, the bushy-browed state senator from Cecil County, must feel the fatigue deep in his bones, poor man. He's 73 years old and he's been going to Annapolis for the past 22 -- longer than anyone should, really -- and he's fought the good fight against the progress of the law and the excess of human emotion. Poor man. Think of all the stories he's had to hear as chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee: stories about kids being accidentally shot by handguns, stories about somebody's husband or sister killed with a gun in a holdup. Terrible stuff. Years and years of it, the same old same old. Poor Walter.

This year, there's been another movement to do something about guns and the particular aspect of their safety, so-called Smart Gun legislation that became the subject of compromise in the General Assembly last week and today appears headed for a Senate vote as Safe Gun legislation. Maryland could become the first state in the nation requiring built-in handgun locks.

Two weeks ago, Carole Price, whose 13-year-old son died in an accident involving a handgun, went to Annapolis to testify in support of the concept. But she ran into Walter B., one of the firearms industry's best friends.

There will be no sob stories, Baker declared. "He said he didn't want his hearing room to become 'a circus of sad stories that really had nothing to do with Smart Gun,' " Carole Price recalled, and others confirmed.

Poor old Walter.

He should have found other work long ago. Instead, he's gone to Annapolis year after year, and -- with one exception that shocked his pals at the National Rifle Association in 1996 -- killed bills designed to further tighten controls on guns.

This year, Democrats did an end run on his committee and sent a common-sense compromise to the Senate floor. Baker took a walk on any further efforts to botch it up. Poor man. His surrender must have been for relief from all those sob stories.

Whatever it was that broke him down, he ought to get used to losing. There's been a sweeping change in thinking about the number of guns in our midst -- in Maryland, a recent poll had 54 percent of likely voters favoring an outright ban on handgun sales -- and it's women like Carole Price who are in the forefront of it. They're going to march right past the likes of Walter Baker and his political kin stuck in the far right wing.

Price lost her son John on a summer day in 1998. They lived in White Marsh at the time. John asked his mother if he could go to a friend's townhouse on Pine Cone Court to watch television for just a half-hour or so. There were three kids in the house, no adults. The children, including John Price, went into a bedroom and found a semiautomatic handgun -- a Ruger 9 mm -- in a dresser drawer. In a moment, John Price was dead from a single bullet to the head.

Police and the Baltimore County state's attorney's office investigated the case. No charges were filed.

Carole Price, joined by her husband, John, hooked up with Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, which has led the effort for tighter gun controls in Maryland.

You can imagine how she felt when, in the Annapolis hearing room two weeks ago, Walter Baker dismissed her testimony and that of others as just another sob story of dubious relevance to his busy mission. "He told everyone that he's been doing this for 22 years and has heard every sad story around," Price says. "But still I sat and listened while others pleaded for [the Smart Gun bill]. Senators slept. Senators laughed and told jokes among themselves. Other senators drank sodas and yawned as if they were inconvenienced."

Adds Price: "I hope no one on Baker's committee ever has to tell their own sad story. They'll never understand the pain of losing a child to a bullet in the face. These people have no clue to what real heartache is. ... I get so angry at these people. They don't see the national crisis we're in."

But most Americans do, and the world will take note this Mother's Day, May 14.

That's when the Million Mom March hits Washington and the U.S. Capitol. Its rallying cry is stricter controls on guns, including background checks on people who buy firearms at gun shows, registration of handguns and licensing of handgun owners, mandatory safety locks on handguns, and "no-nonsense" enforcement of existing gun laws.

Media coverage has been a trickle, but the Million Mom March (888-989-MOMS for information) has been gaining momentum through word of mouth and the Internet, and organizers believe public opinion is shifting their way. They predict this Mother's Day event will be huge.

Carole Price will be there. After her son's death, she and her husband moved from White Marsh to Manchester in northern Carroll County -- ironic, given Carroll's devotion to the gun -- and Price serves as that county's Million Mom March coordinator. She's been very public and outspoken, and has paid for it.

"My son Michael came home from school the other day and a 9-year-old boy had told him, 'Your brother deserved to die and your parents are Communists,' " she says. "We've received a lot of hate mail."

But neither that -- nor the likes of Walter Baker -- can keep her out of the fight over gun control.

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