Mother Protector

Carole Price blames herself for her son's senseless death. To atone, and to prevent similar tragedies, she'll march Sunday for stricter gun control laws.

May 09, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Her eyes are veiled with anger and sorrow as she enters the press conference where she'll lend support to the American Academy of Pediatrics' call for a handgun ban.

Carole Price is on a mission, that much is clear. Drawing any other conclusion is impossible. She's fit and multiply pierced, in a conservative pantsuit and elaborately tattooed, kind of suburban, kind of Harley. It's a potent, type-defiant image that has made Price, Maryland coordinator for Sunday's Million Mom March, a unifying advocate for stricter gun-control laws and a magnet for Time, USA Today and prime-time news producers in pursuit of telegenic crusaders.

When it's time to relate how her son John Joseph Price was killed by a 9-mm Luger pistol the week before he would have started ninth grade at Perry Hall High School, she takes a breath and plows through. She's done this so many times.

"Nineteen months ago, I had to bury my 13-year-old son," Price, 37, begins. He had asked permission to go to a neighbor's townhouse in White Marsh, and within a half-hour was dead, shot accidentally by the 9-year-old who lived there.

In a weary but irate monotone Price lambastes a government that regulates toothpaste ingredients but not handguns. "Enough is enough," she says.

A wire service reporter asks Price precisely how her son was killed. Other reporters audibly gasp at the intrusive question. But Price stares at him and tells the tale. He asks another question: Had she inquired if the neighbors owned guns?

No, she says, continuing her direct gaze.

It's rough stuff, but nothing compared to what Price copes with internally. In her mind, John dies again and again in a bedroom of the Pine Cone Court townhouse. And again and again, some part of Price's mind persuades her that if she campaigns hard enough, he will return. Then, he dies again.

That reporter posed a valid question, Price says later. She should have asked if the neighbors had guns. It's her fault. She blames herself for John's death. And she thinks her husband blames her, too.

To openly dwell on her son's death may appear cruel and unusual for someone who has already suffered so much, but to Carole Price, it's not punishment enough for allowing John to die.

In better moments, Price reasons that maybe her efforts will save the life of someone else's child. "It makes me feel just a little bit better. Maybe John needed to be sacrificed."

A difficult road

Within a week of their son's death, Carole and John Price plunged into the crusade for handgun safety. In imploring national and state lawmakers to reform gun laws, the Prices joined a sad parade of Marylanders: Lois and Dick Hess, whose 24-year-old son was shot to death in 1975; Barbie and Dick Willis, whose 21-year-old son, Charlie, was shot to death in August 1993; and Ginni Wolf, whose husband, State Police Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf, was fatally shot in his patrol car in 1990.

Despite legislative setbacks, and the need to tend to their two children, Michael, 9, and Carly, 8, the Prices have persevered. Last year, after moving from White Marsh to rural Manchester, John Price started challenging firearm buffs and conservative legislators in frequent letters to the Carroll County Times.

In turn, readers pelt Price, a control room operator for BGE. "How about making sure where your children are, what friends they are with, what values do they and their friends have and what are they actually doing all the time?" one recently demanded.

According to Clair Davis, the Prices' former neighbor, they were wonderful parents, strict and loving. And they were good kids. On the morning John died, he left the breakfast table on his own to carry Davis' luggage to the car. "Miss Clair, Miss Clair, let me carry that," she remembers him saying.

In February, the Prices led a well-publicized protest against a gun raffle held by Carroll County Republicans. Then they offered $500 for the 9-mm Beretta handgun Helen Roop had won so they could destroy it. Roop declined.

Lately, John Price has met with Carroll County School officials to devise a gun safety program that excludes Eddie Eagle, the National Rifle Association's education mascot. Claiming the mascot only pays lip service to firearm safety, the Prices have threatened to pull their children from the school system if the NRA cartoon character is introduced there.

In their son's memory, the Prices have sponsored a Little League baseball team called Johnny's Angels, providing another forum for their gun-safety mantra.

Perhaps because she is a mother so open about her grief, Carole Price has become a national emblem of the toll of handgun violence. Colleagues and supporters say her emotional testimony helped push through Maryland's landmark gun-safety law. When President Clinton attended the bill-signing ceremony last month, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend pulled Price from the crowd to meet him.

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