Boy's fatal shooting stirs grief and anger; 13-year-old's friends and their parents sort through feelings; 'Not used to...violence'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The day they found out that the bullet in Tanun "Byrd" Wichainaraphong's head had really killed him, fifth-graders Jonathan Kaufman, Ben Ridgeway and two friends gathered in front of another boy's house and took a poll.

"Do you have a gun?" they asked, turning from one to the other. "Do you?"

It was a meeting that would have been unimaginable a week ago in the peaceful, flower-filled Fairways neighborhood in Ellicott City -- 10-year-olds taking a safety survey -- but one that illustrates how the community has been affected by the accidental death of one of its own.

Wichainaraphong, 13, who was known as Byrd, was playing video games with friends Wednesday when a 15-year-old showed off his .22-caliber rifle, a bullet was accidentally fired and Byrd was struck in the back of the head. He died two days later at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

For many of the children in the neighborhood, Byrd's death is the biggest, most tragic event they've known.

They've seen shootings on TV. They've heard about them in other places.

"There was that thing in Colorado," they say when asked to remember something so awful. Or, "Oh, yeah, that Joseph Palczynski guy."

But nothing so close to home.

"I would never think that something like that would happen around here," said Erin McPhail, 13, who went to school with Byrd at Burleigh Manor Middle. "It's like, this is a really safe community. We're not used to having any violence."

McPhail said the middle school is an exceptionally peaceful one, void of drugs, weapons and schoolyard scuffles.

"Our principal, she has a rule that you treat everyone else like you want to be treated, and we follow that rule to the 'T,' " McPhail said. "We're all friends, basically, every grade."

Knowing how close-knit the pupils are, the Howard County school system's crisis intervention team is planning to be at Burleigh Manor today, the pupils' first day back from spring break, providing opportunities for children to grieve and be comforted.

The principal will make an all-school announcement in the morning, and a letter will go out to parents tonight.

At school

Throught the day, counselors will be in every class where Byrd was enrolled throughout the day, and other trained adults will be available throughout the school.

Andrew Elgort, a school psychologist and the district's crisis coordinator, said Burleigh Manor Principal Barbara Hoffman is planning to form a committee of pupils, staff and parents to come up with a way to remember Byrd.

Elgort said the crisis team is expecting a long, difficult day.

"I think it's going to be really hard for a lot of kids," Elgort said. "Byrd was a very popular young man and apparently a very lovely young man to know. He had a lot of friends."

Because such tragedies happen so infrequently in Howard County, he said, the shock is particularly acute.

"It will take time to heal," Elgort said. "But we hope that the buffer [of spring break and the weekend] has taken away just a little of the shock and the denial."

Even as late as yesterday, parents and Byrd's friends remained in disbelief -- and anger.

"Where were the parents of the boy?" asked Dan Pfeiffer, whose 9-year-old son played football with Byrd. "What was he doing with whiskey in his room and a gun?! I just don't get it."

It's unnerving, Pfeiffer said, to know that your children can encounter guns at friends' and neighbors' homes, no matter how safe you try to keep your home.

Parents' concerns

Even when parents teach their children to walk away from guns and question the parents of their children's playmates, they cannot be sure their children will be safe, said John Price of Carroll County, whose 13-year-old son was killed in a similar way two years ago.

Price said his son John told his playmate to put the gun away and was leaving the room when he was shot.

For months, Price and his wife, Carole, refused to let their other two children visit friends. When their son Michael begged to play at another friend's house, they questioned the child and his mother about whether guns were in the home. Both told him none were and reluctantly the Prices let their son go to play for an hour.

"The whole time he was there we were freaking out," Price said.

Michael returned unharmed, but a week later the friend's father informed them that there were guns in the home after all.

"Teaching isn't the sole answer," Price said. "The technology needs to be changed. Kids are curious."

Since their son's death, the couple have promoted tougher gun safety laws, including the recent requirement that handguns sold in Maryland be equipped with trigger locks.

Accidental shootings

The National Safe Kids Campaign notes that 142 children under age 14 were killed in accidental shootings in 1997.

"Children should not have access to firearms, no ifs, ands or buts," said Genny O'Donnell, manager of program development for the organization.

Guns should be kept unloaded and locked away from children; ammunition should be kept separately; and gun locks, lock boxes or gun safes should be used for every gun in the home, the group advises.

Injury and death from accidental shootings has been going down, although no one knows why, said Jon Vernick, associate director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research.

In 1997, there were 981 fatalities from accidental shootings nationwide, compared with 1,982 deaths in 1977, he said.

The national trend is reflected among children treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Last year, the hospital treated 10 children under the age of 15 for accidental gunshot wounds, compared with 24 children in 1995, said Dr. Charles Paidas, director of pediatric trauma at the hospital.

"People are much more aware of the dangers," Paidas said.

The Center for Gun Policy and Research said laws aimed at making firearms safer are having an impact.

Though lawmakers have focused mainly on handguns, which represent the largest share of firearm deaths in the country, Vernick said officials also should consider the danger of rifles and shotguns.

"We need to be considering whether it is appropriate for a 15-year-old to have unauthorized access to a rifle or shotgun," he said.

In Howard County, it is illegal for a child under age 16 to possess or discharge a weapon within the metropolitan district, and it is a misdemeanor in Maryland to leave a loaded firearm in a place where an unattended child could gain access to it.

Hearing

The 15-year-old accused in the shooting has been charged as a juvenile with reckless endangerment and discharging a firearm in the metropolitan district as well as alcohol violations. He is to appear tomorrow before a juvenile master to determine whether he will be released to the custody of his parents.

Daniel "D" Mechanic, 12, who was close a friend of Byrd's, said he remains angry with the 15-year-old, even though it was an accident.

The stunned middle-schooler wandered the grassy neighborhood alone yesterday, his head down, his hands in his back pockets.

When asked how he was holding up, Daniel frowned. "Not too good," he said.

"I don't know anybody who has a gun. I didn't even think [the 15-year-old] had a gun," he said, shaking his head. "I never thought anything like this would happen. Nothing like this really happens around here. Ever."

Buddhist services were held for Wichainaraphong last night and will be held tonight and tomorrow night from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Harry H. Witzke Funeral Home, 4112 Old Columbia Pike.

He is survived by his parents, Thanutkit Vichainaraphong and Yaowalak Thongpob Wichainaraphong, and two brothers.

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