Holley Haymaker lived in Louisiana for more than two decades before she realized she was in gun country.
A family doctor and reproductive rights activist, Haymaker kept the company of like-minded liberals at her church and in the academic community that her husband, a professor of theoretical physics, had joined when they moved from upstate New York in 1970. As a high school health consultant in North Baton Rouge, Haymaker cared for Black students who had been traumatized by violence in their communities, and who couldn’t sleep at night because the sound of gunfire kept them awake. But she didn’t know anyone who had guns, and she didn’t consider them a danger to her family.
That changed in 1992, a couple of weeks before Halloween. Haymaker and her husband, Dick, were driving home from seeing “The Last of the Mohicans,” a sprawling epic about the French and Indian War. They had just finished saying how glad they were that the United States wasn’t as violent as it was in the 18th century when Holley’s pager went off. They found a pay phone.
When she dialed the number, she reached the police department in the nearby suburb of Central. “‘There’s been an accident,’” Haymaker, now 77, recalls the officer saying. “‘Your son is fine. The other boy’ — they garbled his name — ‘is not.’”
The “other boy” was Yoshihiro Hattori, a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student who had been living for the last two months in Baton Rouge with the Haymakers and their son of the same age, Webb. Earlier that night, Yoshi and Webb had gone to a Halloween party in Central. But, as the Haymakers would soon learn, the boys knocked on the wrong door.
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The woman who answered saw Webb and Yoshi and slammed the door. The boys started walking away, realizing they might have the wrong house, when the woman’s husband appeared at a side door with a .44 caliber revolver and called out “Freeze!”
Yoshi, who was dressed in a white tuxedo jacket a lá John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever,” was unfamiliar with the command, and stepped forward to greet him. “We’re here for the party,” he said cheerfully. The man shot him once in the chest.
As Yoshi bled out on the sidewalk, Webb ran to the house next door to summon help, then applied pressure to the bullet wound until he was relieved by emergency responders. Yoshi died in the ambulance, 30 minutes after he was shot. The gunman claimed self-defense and, in a case that played a pivotal role in the gun violence debate and preceded “stand your ground” laws by more than a decade, he ultimately walked free.
“This shooting awakened people to a potentially toxic gun culture out there,” says Josh Horwitz, co-director of Center for Gun Violence Solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was a gun reform lobbyist on Capitol Hill at the time. “It really was a wake-up call that a much bigger cancer was eating at the soul of America.”
Yoshi’s shooting ignited a media firestorm that cast an international spotlight on America’s soaring gun violence, then approaching all-time highs. The teen’s death caused outrage in Japan over widespread gun ownership in America, and the seeming willingness of neighbors to turn their weapons on each other. It also awakened Americans to the fact that gun violence wasn’t something that happened only in Black and brown neighborhoods. Perhaps most consequently, though, Yoshi’s killing helped unite Americans around the Brady Bill, a federal background check measure that was still a year away from passage.
Today, the tragedy has largely faded from public memory, eclipsed by mass shootings and increasing polarization among Americans. Yet what remains striking is how it presaged our current era: Americans now own more guns than ever, the majority of states have enacted laws designed to shield self-defense shooters from criminal prosecution, and armed self-defense is referred to by some lawmakers as a “God-given right.”
Yoshi’s shooting generated headlines in national news outlets, and Horwitz and Haymaker think that’s because it didn’t fit the dominant narrative of the time, which was that gun violence was “gang-related,” and thus something that majority-white America could comfortably ignore.
“We were all incredibly naive about guns,” she said, referring to her family and friends. “And certainly I was naive about what was at risk for our sons when they went off to Central, Louisiana, to a party.”
When Haymaker and her husband met their son at the police station that night, Webb was sitting in a big empty room and hadn’t been told of Yoshi’s death. When she broke the news, he put his head in his hands and said, “Oh, his poor mother.”
Yoshi was gregarious, and determined to make America his second home. He’d been a rugby enthusiast in Japan, but once he got to Baton Rouge he sought out a jazz class and biked there once a week, quickly overcoming a language barrier to decipher the hand-drawn maps that Haymaker made for him.
As Haymaker and her husband drove to the airport to meet Yoshi’s parents two days later, “I was terrified,” she said. Mieko Hattori and her husband, Masaichi, had trusted a stranger with their child, and he died in their care. She expected them to blame her. “And they come out of the plane, and Mieko gives me a hug and the first thing she says is, ‘How is Webb?’”
Haymaker later learned that when Mieko got the call that her son was dead, she fell to the ground and screamed. But now her chief concern was the son who survived, Webb, who had his own trauma to grapple with.
The day after the Hattoris arrived, Yoshi’s memorial was held at Holley Haymaker’s church. “And Mieko stands up and says she has compassion for the man who killed her son,” Haymaker recalled. Mieko said that the gunman was a victim, too, his life “changed forever because of the accessibility of guns.” In a thank-you note to the minister after the service, Mieko said her first instinct was to wish her son’s killer dead, but “it is the American law permitting private ownership of guns at home we despise. We love America, so I want American society to be worth our respect and admiration.”
On her way back to Japan with her son’s ashes, Mieko thought about Webb’s suggestion of writing to Bill Clinton, then a candidate for president. As she napped on the plane, she dreamt that Yoshi told her to start a petition urging Americans to get rid of their guns. The notion may seem far-fetched now, when there are 400 million guns in civilian hands. But in 1992, strict regulation of concealable firearms was still on the table.
“At that point there was a lot of optimism that there was still time to turn this around,” Horwitz said, referring to rising gun violence.
By the time Mieko’s plane landed, she had drafted an outline for a petition drive in Japan. The Hattoris began soliciting signatures from Yoshi’s peers. Back in Louisiana, Haymaker and her husband, Dick, started another petition. They wrote op-eds and pitched stories to the media, and eventually appeared on all three network morning shows. Dick called the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, one of only three gun reform groups lobbying on the Hill at the time, and asked for their support. He was referred to Horwitz, then a general counsel for the organization, and they became friends.
“Dick was in a lot of pain, but he wanted to do something,” Horwitz said. ”He literally spent a year on the phone calling colleagues and universities and friends, and it just snowballed.”
The Haymakers ultimately collected 120,000 signatures, while the Hattoris collected 1.7 million. In a world without social media, email, or even cell phones, a pen-and-paper petition with that much support could still make a difference. “What was so remarkable is that we were able to do that through real people power — letters, postcards, phone calls,” Horwitz said.
Interest in the petition was fueled in part by outrage over the possibility that Yoshi’s killing might go unpunished. The gunman, a 30-year-old supermarket butcher, was questioned by police on the night of the shooting but released. The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Department said he wasn’t charged because “there was no criminal intent.” It was only after the governor and the Japanese consul in New Orleans put pressure on the police that he was charged with manslaughter, nearly three weeks after the shooting.
“Somebody had to step in because it was sort of the country good-old-boy network,” Haymaker said. “Central is a suburb, it’s not the country, but it’s got a country mentality.”
Halfway into the petition drive, in May of 1993, Yoshi’s killer went on trial. It was a media circus, Horwitz recalls, with swarms of news crews, many of them from other countries. During the weeklong trial, the gunman testified that Yoshi had acted aggressively toward him, and that he was “scared to death.” He said he grabbed a gun, no questions asked, to protect his family, which included three children. “I felt I had no other choice,” he testified.
Yoshi was the opposite of menacing, Haymaker remembers, the type of person who made friends in his adopted country “just by looking at them. He was just so vibrant.” She believes that racism played a role in the homeowner’s decision to open fire. “If we’d had a Norwegian exchange student, we would not have had a shooting,” she said. In the court record, both the gunman and his wife refer to Yoshi as “Oriental,” a term which was only eliminated from federal law in 2016. They do not identify Webb by his race.
The jury deliberated for three hours and acquitted the defendant. Outside the courtroom, he directed an apology to the Hattoris — “I’m very sorry that any of this ever happened” — and said he was giving up his guns.
Haymaker has no idea if he did. But the shooting, she said, “certainly wasn’t good for his life. He comes from a culture that caused this trauma. I mean, he may not feel that trauma all the time. But it’s there.”
Six months after the acquittal, the Haymakers’ petition was presented to Congress, while the Hattoris’ petition was presented to President Bill Clinton, who invited both families to the White House. The Brady Bill — named for the former White House press secretary, who was wounded during the 1981 assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagan — had just passed the House and was poised to pass the Senate. During their 15-minute meeting, Masaichi Hattori said through a translator that he hoped the petitions, which were delivered in boxes labeled “No More Gun Victims” and adorned with Yoshi’s face, would prompt Americans to “take the problem of gun violence more seriously and put an end to it.” Clinton apologized to the couple, and Mieko Hattori showed him photos of her son and placed a “no-handguns” sticker on his lapel.
Two weeks later, Clinton signed the Brady Bill. “This shocked the conscience of America, so that people in Congress took really tough votes to support some of these bills,” Horwitz said, referring to both the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban that was enacted later.
The same day the assault weapons ban was signed into law by Clinton in 1994, the Hattoris and the Haymakers convened in a Baton Rouge courtroom for the civil trial of Yoshi’s killer. After four days of testimony, he was found liable and ordered to pay the Hattoris $650,000. The judge ruled that “there was no justification whatsoever that a killing was necessary for [him] to save himself and/or his family.”
The gunman’s homeowners insurance paid the Hattoris $100,000; to this day, that’s all they’ve received. They donated some of the money to gun reform groups and launched the Yoshi Foundation, an exchange program for American high school students. Participants spend a year in Japan so they can experience life in a place where they don’t have to fear guns. So far, 31 teenagers have made the trip, some of them from gun-friendly states like Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, and Tennessee. In an email, Mieko Hattori said she was “proud” to have shown them a different point of view. America’s continued gun tragedies “enrage me,” she added.
Just before the 30th anniversary of Yoshi’s death this past October, the Hattoris announced their retirement from gun reform advocacy. A few days later they sent a message to be read aloud at a memorial event at the Haymakers’ church: “Thanks to many people in Louisiana, my son’s dream of making America his second country has come true.”
“Yoshi loved the idea of America,” Horwitz said. “He loved the idea of freedom in America. And the freedom that he loved, in many ways, killed him.”
But Yoshi wasn’t the only victim.
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After the shooting, to cope with his trauma, Webb immersed himself in music, refining his jazz guitar and saxophone skills. He graduated in 1994, and that fall he went to a liberal arts college in Minnesota, where he began to process his trauma through writing. After graduation he studied writing in England, then pivoted to behavioral healthcare, getting a master’s in social work from Columbia University. He became a child therapist and moved back to Louisiana in 2018 to set up a practice in New Orleans.
The trauma of the shooting, and his efforts to process it, are what drew him to psychotherapy, Haymaker said. But loved ones say he was haunted by survivor’s guilt. “For many years, Webb was deeply, outwardly affected,” said Horwitz, who spent the anniversary of Yoshi’s shooting last year shucking oysters with Webb in the backyard. “And sometimes he’d put those things away, but they’d come back.”
On March 2 of this year, Webb died by suicide. Upon hearing the news, “I screamed and yelled and fell to the ground,” Haymaker said — just as Mieko Hattori had done almost exactly 30 years earlier.
Haymaker wants people to know that Webb did not use a gun to end his life. “I think that, oddly, that was a kindness to those of us who survived,” she said.
After decades of empathizing with the Hattoris’ loss, the Haymakers now feel their pain acutely. They consider Webb to be another casualty of the 1992 shooting. “That’s what Dick said to me,” Horwitz said. “‘That bullet didn’t hit Webb, but it killed him just the same.’”
Today Haymaker and her husband are retirees, and still live in Baton Rouge. But she’s disappointed that gun laws in many states have only become more permissive since Yoshi’s death. When asked if American society is worthy of Mieko Hattori’s respect and admiration, Haymaker says no. She’s lived in Louisiana for more than half a century now, and still bristles at the shoot-first mentality embraced by her neighbors.
“We have this myth that we’re still at the frontier and we have to defend ourselves,” she said. “We are not.”