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.


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.

For someone who used to become physically ill in high school public-speaking class, who aspired to be a great stay-at-home mom and earned pocket money bartending and cleaning houses, it has been a dramatic transformation.

While her 80-year-old adoptive mother watches the kids, Price fills her days with appearances at press conferences, rallies and any event where she and colleagues can take their gun-control message.

"Now I run completely and entirely on emotion and passion for my son's memory," Price says, explaining her emergence as a public figure.

As the state coordinator for the Million Mom March, she also supervises a mountain of details, from button distribution to e-mailing Marylanders planning to attend the march. To both presidential candidates she has written a Mother's Day letter asking for their pledge in support of handgun licensing and childproofing. "Our children should not be afraid to go to school, church, visit their friends or go to the zoo, with the fear of being gunned down," the letter says. "Yet, every day they are."

Between appointments, Price attends her son's Little League games. Michael is the one who helped her bounce back after John's death. I already lost a brother, he told her. I don't want to lose my mother, too.

In her new role, Price's maternal instincts continuously surface. Recently she cooked a big dinner for the march's county coordinators from across the state, many of whom met for the first time around her kitchen table.

While her guests chat, she alternately sits silently in a chair, grabs a smoke on her back porch, dives into the conversation, urges her mother to eat something. She pops up to fetch a Popsicle for someone's young son. He looks just like John did at that age, she tells his mother.

Drawing the line

By now, Price knows the game: The media use you and you use them. If the public needs to see the "face of grief," here it is, with a mouth to go with it. Price has learned not to be a pushover; not to let others speak for her, or spread herself too thin.

She bristles if advisers tell her to remove eyebrow and nose studs, to appear as "a normal person." Price is willing to concede on her chiseled, fully tattooed arms, which include an image of Carole in fetal position, shedding a tear for her dead son, by wearing long-sleeved blouses.

But there is only so much she'll take from the news crews constantly appearing in her driveway. One European team wanted to tape Carole at her son's school, his grave, the townhouse where he died. She drew the line at the townhouse.

Even as she has become the most visible Marylander attempting to turn personal tragedy into triumph, Price struggles through the stages of grief, like a pianist ruffling erratically along the scales. She may teeter from denial and anger to guilt, then, in trying to find meaning in John's death, advance to resolution, before slumping into grief again, all in the course of a day.

Price's best friend from forever, Joanie Ausherman, says, "I know she's not the type of person to just turn away from something like this. She's always going to look for a reason. She wants to know if there is something she could do to prevent this from happening to other families. ... She's a very motivated person. She's just not one to turn over and say, 'It happened.' "

The work Carole and John have put into gun reform allowed them to avoid mending their relationship. It's as if Price amputated her leg to save her life but now must reattach it and learn to walk again.

Outside their house in a tidy subdivision, John Price tends the grounds obsessively. There is a cheery "Welcome" sign, and an American eagle over the doorway. A weeping cherry tree is planted in their son's honor, and a young clematis will soon bloom. There are Johnny-jump-ups galore.

But enter the Price home on a chill morning, and the air is thick with grief, as if the boy died yesterday. His picture is everywhere: on the refrigerator, over the kitchen sink, in the bathroom. He looks just like his mother.

On the large-screen television, the morning talk shows give way to the soaps, the phone rings, the fax hums. Carole Price, with cropped, dark-brown hair and dark doe eyes, kisses Wormy, her new Chihuahua puppy. Anna DiDonato, Price's aunt, who raised her like her own, sits on the couch, and remembers how her late grandson loved the way she seasoned his hamburgers.

Commotion doesn't drown out the sorrow. Carole Price has yet to see a therapist, she's afraid of losing a grip on who her son was. She hasn't worked out or gone running since John died. Sleep is spotty; the stress hard on her body. At times, she's apt to be as harsh as she is loving.

John Price enters with a fried baloney sandwich, a cup of crab soup. His wife takes a bite of sandwich. They're familiar but testy with one another.

"They are dealing with John's death in different ways," Ausherman says. "Carole just can't get enough of [her dead son] around her, John is just the opposite. He'll say, 'I don't want to do that, it reminds me of John.' It's very hard, they are all hurting and in so much pain. [I hope] the Lord will wrap his arms around that family and just help them out. It's been two years now; they're still not together with it."

When Carole appeared on Tom Brokaw's nightly news program recently, John watched it and threw up. He can't deal with constant reminders. "I can't crack," he says. "If I crack, the whole house will crack."

Afraid of 'nothing'

The Prices met nearly 20 years ago at Hammerjacks. They used to zoom around in John's Corvette, with Ausherman squeezing in for the ride.

Carole was abandoned by her birth mother when she was 2 months old, and her aunt took her home. She was a feisty kid. She'd sneak out of the house, raise hell. She was also the kid who took home stray animals. She got her first tattoo, "a homemade job," at 14, and an observer might wonder whether her fascination with body art and piercing is a thinly disguised attempt at self-mutilation.

After graduating from Parkville High School, Price went to work but never thought much beyond day-to-day existence. Yet when she and John started their own family, Carole held it together with a fierce, protective streak, absorbed from her adoptive mother. You get the feeling she would die for her kids.

The Price family ate dinner together every night, often by candlelight while listening to classical music. Cookies always filled the jar on the kitchen counter. "I didn't want anything else ... never felt cheated being at home," Carole says.

But now, being home is what she fears the most. "I'm scared to death for the march to be here and gone," Price says. "It's occupied my time and my mind, the pace is so quick. When there's nothing ... I'm worried about that -- when the phone stops ringing."

The Prices will have to reconcile their separate visions of loss if they want to remain a family. They made a pact to fight for gun control, but they will also have to figure out how to grow intimate again, find joy in their children and each other. Carole will have to learn to believe her children when they say, "We're not going to die, Mom, we promise," and let them go out into the world.

When she's feeling up, Price is exhilarated by her hard work and recognition.

But she must confront the abyss that awaits her. "I refuse to lose anything else in my life," Price says of her husband and family. When the last news crew has pulled away, "I want to enjoy being at home again."

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