Teen death prompts gun-safety campaign

Neighbors to attend Million Mom March in memory of `Byrd'

April 28, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Neighbors of the well-liked, sunny Ellicott City boy who was killed in an accidental shooting last week are rallying to prevent a similar tragedy.

Many residents plan to attend a Mother's Day gun-safety march in honor of 13-year-old Tanun "Byrd" Wichainaraphong, and they're lobbying the school board to implement gun-safety education in all grades.

"As a community, we have to pull together and do something about these incredibly wasteful deaths," said Mary Catherine Cochran, a neighbor of Byrd's who is helping to organize the efforts.

"There are some things we can't avoid. This is something we can avoid: We can avoid having one more child [killed] in an accidental shooting."

Byrd, a sixth-grader at Burleigh Manor Middle School was playing video games with friends during spring break when a 15-year-old, showing off his .22-caliber rifle, accidentally fired a bullet into Byrd's head, police said.

Byrd died two days later at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Teachers recalled his infectious cheerfulness, his kindness to his younger brothers and his ability in class. In Byrd's quiet, close-knit Fairways neighborhood, where many counted themselves his friend, children wept. Shaken parents asked Byrd's family how they could help.

The answer prompted them to act.

"The one thing that his mother said to us neighbors when we asked what we could do: `Get the guns out of the homes,' " Cochran said.

The rally May 14 is the Million Mom March in Washington, organized by a New Jersey mother to advocate gun-control legislation such as background checks, safety locks and strict enforcement of gun laws.

Those planning to attend in Byrd's honor can meet at 11 a.m. on the steps of the Museum of Natural History in Washington. Each will get a button with a photograph of the teen-ager holding a football -- the sport was a favorite pastime -- and laughing.

"We're hoping that this is a visible sign to [Byrd's family] that people in Howard County cared about him and want to do something lasting," said Terry Beckmann, whose son is a sixth-grader at Burleigh Manor Middle School.

Residents also have begun pressing the school system -- and talking to the Howard County Police Department and to several area groups -- about a gun-safety program in classrooms that would educate children about what to do if they see firearms.

Only the fourth-grade curriculum requires gun-safety education, although all elementary schools have gun-safety videos. Cochran and others would like the subject covered more frequently, possibly through the curriculum and a separate program.

School board member Laura Waters said she will support the initiative.

"I think it's a wonderful idea," she said. "The more kids know about that, the better."

Helen Mercer, guidance counselor at Manor Woods Elementary School, which Byrd attended and which his two brothers attend, agreed. Some children saw the 15-year-old's gun before the fatal accident but didn't know to tell anyone, she said.

"They just didn't think there was an element of danger, and that just says it all," said Mercer, who considers gun-safety education "essential" in every grade.

Mercer said the push for change and the desire by neighbors to help are typical of the community.

Residents say they feel they must do what they can to honor Byrd, who had the knack of making people feel happier. An immigrant from Thailand, he made friends easily even before he learned English, neighbors said.

Manor Woods Elementary pupils wrote letters to his family this week, expressing sympathy and love.

At The Mall in Columbia is a makeshift memorial of flowers and notes next to an exhibit of student artwork.

Directly above the tokens of affection is a mixed-media work of a jungle scene, a burst of greens and blues and yellows.

The artist was Byrd.

"It's so powerful," said Courtney Watson, an Ilchester Elementary School parent who knows Byrd's family.

Buses for Howard County residents attending the Million Mom March will leave Broken Land Park & Ride, Route 32 and Broken Land Parkway, at 10 a.m. May 14. To reserve a seat, call Cathy Rosenheim, 301-596-0579.

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