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Wednesday, September 18, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Child's Death Haunts Marysville -- Why Did 8-Year-Old Shooting Victim Have To Die?

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

MARYSVILLE - "Why?" was the question on Whitney Graves' street yesterday. Why was her 10-year-old playmate left unsupervised in a house Monday? Why was a loaded gun left in the house?

Why did Whitney have to die?

"A trigger lock costs four bucks," said Paul Graves, Whitney's grandfather. "That gun cost two families grief."

Police said the 10-year-old boy found the gun on the top shelf of a closet in his parents' master bedroom. Somehow, the 9-mm semiautomatic pistol accidentally discharged, fatally wounding 8-year-old Whitney.

She died at 10:30 a.m. yesterday at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

"I guess it happens every day," said Clarence Bogart, who lives near the house where Whitney was shot. "It's just too bad when it is in your own neighborhood."

It happens in neighborhoods all across the country, and it happens in much the same way Whitney's death occurs, according to gun-control advocates.

Firearms are the second leading cause of death, after car accidents, for children ages 10 to 19, said Bruce Gryniewski, executive director of Washington Ceasefire.

And when children accidentally kill themselves or other children with guns, most of those guns were found at their home or the home of a family member or friend, said Gryniewski, citing a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Whitney's death comes as gun-control activists are mounting a campaign to pass a state law aimed at safer storage of handguns.

Leaders of Washington Ceasefire and Mothers Against Violence in America (MAVIA) said they plan to push legislation next year that would mandate trigger locks on new guns, require gun owners to lock up their weapons and make the gun owners liable for accidents. The proposed legislation has no sponsor yet, they said. Similar legislation died last year.

About 15 other states already have passed such laws, Gryniewski said.

Marysville Police Lt. Dennis Peterson yesterday said no criminal charges would be filed.

"I've gotten a ton of calls about this tragedy," Gryniewski said. "They're really mad. They want to know why the parents can't be held liable for the fact that they had this gun that was just sitting around loaded."

A spokesman for the Washington state chapter of the National Rifle Association declined to comment on the legislation but said the organization favors mandatory gun education for elementary-school children.

"Responsible gun owners definitely need to keep firearms away from children," said NRA spokesman Mike Krei.

Krei said the NRA prefers mandatory gun education for elementary-school kids, such as the "Eddie Eagle" four-step program it developed to instruct children when they find a gun to "stop, don't touch, leave the area and tell an adult."

Whatever the strategy, preventing more deaths such as Whitney's was clearly on the minds of her neighbors and teachers yesterday.

Family members at the girl's home were stunned. Neighborhood kids just returning from Sunnyside Elementary School walked up and down the street, some crying, with other youngsters asking the older kids why they were so sad.

"Why are you crying?" one asked an older girl sitting on her front step, head buried in her hands.

"Because she's gone!" the girl screamed, running.

Down the street at the house in which Whitney was shot, the shades were drawn and everything was quiet.

Neighbors shook their heads.

"My heart goes out to both the families," said Darcy Bogart, Clarence Bogart's adult daughter.

A giant flag in front of Sunnyside, Whitney's school, drooped at half-staff yesterday as classes let out. Teary-eyed children rode away in yellow school buses. Staff members met with outside counselors to help them, students and parents deal with the accident.

Shortly after Whitney's death, teachers were called out of their classes and told of the news. They told each of their classes individually. Each parent of a child in Whitney's class was called, said district Superintendent Dick Eisenhauer.

"One of the most important things to deal with is to dispel all rumors," he said.

Days like yesterday are the ones teachers and administrators dread, said Eisenhauer, just three weeks into his job at Marysville. Unfortunately, he's had previous experience dealing with a school stricken by grief over a dead student.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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