A suspect, few clues

Sun reporters

Nicholas Browning appeared on the television screen in a Towson courtroom yesterday, his dirty-blond hair tousled, wearing a jail-issued orange jumpsuit. The 15-year-old Dulaney High School sophomore answered the judge's questions with "ma'am," as he was ordered held without bail in his first court appearance after being charged with murdering his family.

No juvenile criminal record, said the pretrial services official. No history of substance abuse or mental illness. No clues in the courtroom that might enable students at two Cockeysville schools to understand how an honor student on the verge of becoming an Eagle Scout could be behind bars and why two of their young classmates have been shot dead.

"It sounded so surreal," said Dulaney High School senior Shannon Lee, walking across the school lawn yesterday morning and recalling the moment she heard the news. "Who goes home and kills their parents?"

The Cockeysville community seemed not much closer yesterday to finding answers to the killings Friday night or early Saturday of John W. and Tamara Browning and their other two sons, 14-year-old Gregory and 11-year-old Benjamin.

But the educational and court systems began their responses, deploying counselors to schools and appointing an aunt and uncle as legal guardians to look after Nicholas Browning's interests.

The teen's lawyer, Steven D. Silverman, cautioned against reading too much into the confession that police say Browning gave them hours after calling 911 to report his father's death.

"I'm just concerned that you have a ... traumatized 15-year-old boy, who gave a confession in the wee hours of Sunday morning, in a police station, after denying these charges for several hours, without an adult, without an attorney," Silverman said outside the courthouse.

"I am only suggesting there is a need not to jump to conclusions. Let's look at the circumstances and go from there."

Silverman said the teen had personally contacted his law firm several times Sunday. As Nicholas Browning appeared for his court hearing yesterday through a video link with the county detention center, Silverman lobbied for bail to be set at $1 million, noting the teen's numerous extracurricular activities, including sports, Boy Scouts and music.

Because he is under 16 years old, Browning is not eligible for the death penalty.

Police have said Browning had had disagreements with his father, but they did not release new details in the case yesterday, including what kind of firearm was used and whether the weapon, owned by the father, was registered. An incident sheet reviewed at the Cockeysville precinct said the weapon was a 9 mm Smith and Wesson.

Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman, said Maryland law requires handguns to be secured and stored out of the reach of a child under the age of 16. Failure to keep firearms away from children is a misdemeanor and subject to a fine up to $1,000, he said.

But he said the law is not specific about what type of measures need to be taken.

"We recommend that the weapon have trigger locks that can be used and the weapon be unloaded and in a locked box," Shipley said. "We certainly endorse a layered approach to make sure that the gun stays inaccessible."

Daniel Webster, an associate professor and co-director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy, said Maryland has one of the better-crafted gun laws.

He said about 20 states have laws that require owners of firearms to lock up their guns.

Webster said these type of laws for firearms owners have reduced unintentional shootings throughout the country by about 23 percent. Little data exists, however, on whether locking up guns reduces deliberate shootings, Webster said.

Gun rights advocates such as Erich Pratt of Gun Owners of America said yesterday that the lobby group opposes most restrictions on handguns inside the home. He added that keeping a gun locked away and secured by a trigger lock would hobble a law-abiding homeowner with only seconds to respond to an intruder.

Still, those advocating more regulation point out that while handguns account for only one-third of all firearms owned in the United States, they are instrumental in more than two-thirds of the firearm-related deaths each year.

Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign, the nation's largest nonpartisan grass-roots organization against gun violence, said that a gun is 22 times more likely to be used against a family member than to ward off an outsider.

Grief counselors were at Dulaney High and Cockeysville Middle schools yesterday morning to help students deal with the news that a schoolmate had been charged with fatally shooting his family over the weekend.

Shortly after the first bell of the school day, Philip W. Taylor, principal at Cockeysville Middle School, prepared to walk the halls to check on students and staff.

By the end of the day, lockers of brothers Gregory and Ben Browning were covered with cards and signs.

"We're trying to help the kids through this," Taylor said. "This is an extremely emotional day for our school community. This is a family who has come through this school. This is a devastating loss to the whole school community."

Memorial groups sprang up on the popular Facebook networking Web site, with hundreds of young people who knew the family or the children expressing a wide array of emotions.

While some condemned Nicholas Browning, others offered cautious support.

"Mr. Browning would want everyone to give support and pray for Nick despite his actions. That's just the kind of person, and family they were," wrote one man, who said his father worked in John Browning's Towson law firm.

At Royston, Mueller, McLean & Reid, where John Browning had worked for about 20 years, the phones were ringing continuously yesterday with calls of condolence, said Edward J. Gilliss, one of the firm's partners.

"It's an extended-family tragedy," said Gilliss, who added that a grief counselor was brought to the firm's Towson office to help co-workers.

"John was always full of spirit, always loyal to his friends and family. It's hard to lose that."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com gina.davis@baltsun.comSun reporters Matthew Dolan and Brent Jones contributed to this article.

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