How could it happen here?

Holley & Richard Haymaker

November 12, 1992|By Holley & Richard Haymaker

Baton Rouge, La. -- ABOUT 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 17, two 16-year-old boys knocked on a door, believing they had come to the right house for a party.

Moments later Webb Haymaker, our son, knelt over the body of his friend Yoshihiro Hattori -- exchange student, son of a homemaker and an engineer from Nagoya, Japan.

At the same time, heading home from "The Last of the Mohicans," we remarked how fortunate we are to live in an era in which we have not experienced the violence depicted in the film.

Holley's pager sounded and we pulled over at a public phone.

"There's been a terrible accident," a deputy sheriff told Holley. "Webb is all right. But his friend has been injured. We'd like you to come up here to the sheriff's substation"

"I think we should meet you at the hospital," Holley said.

"That won't be necessary," the deputy said.

Webb and Yoshi had driven to Central, a quiet suburb of Baton Rouge, to go to a party for exchange students. But the boys had two digits reversed in the address and were five houses off.

Bonnie Peairs opened the door and, startled by two boys she did not know, slammed it shut.

Webb and Yoshi were walking back to their car when, behind them, a door under the carport opened.

Yoshi moved toward the carport, probably assuming they had found the party after all.

But 30-year-old Rodney Peairs was at the door with his .44 magnum. "Freeze!" he commanded.

"We're here for the party," Yoshi said, for the last time moving his body through space.

At the memorial service, Yoshi's parents spoke with calm dignity and generosity of spirit. They repeatedly thanked our community for the richness of experience Yoshi had been afforded.

But, his mother observed, it is hard for Japanese people to understand why guns are so easily available in America.

In Japan no one keeps firearms at home. Rodney and Bonnie Peairs are also victims, she said; their lives are now changed forever because of the accessibility of guns.

At Yoshi's funeral in Japan on Monday, the Hattoris released a more critical statement: "The thing we must really despise, more than the criminal, is the American law that permits people to own guns."

A .44 magnum is not a gun with which you can shoot to wound; it is designed to kill. A .44 magnum does not ensure a citizen protection from government tyranny.

But the owner of a .44 magnum can easily see himself as Dirty Harry. When he does, he is primed to gun down unarmed children, with no questions asked and no provocation except that a body moved a little through space after the man with the gun said "Freeze!"

Had Rodney Peairs not been armed, he might have acted on the human instinct to exchange words, to ask questions. But the gun perverted that instinct, substituting its voice for the human one.

Yoshi's death tells us something that we all know abstractly and that far too many of us are getting to know concretely:

We must put behind us the imperatives of an unpoliced frontier, of an era when a homeowner couldn't lock his door and dial 911, as Rodney Peairs might have done.

Americans must learn to think of guns as reserved -- without exception -- for hunting.

We must explore this urgent question: Are we, our children and our neighbors' children really safer once we cross that mental line and let ourselves think of our guns as dual-purpose weapons, not just for killing game but for killing people too?

In memory of that smiling boy, Yoshi Hattori, we hope and pray that the time is near when our civilization will attain a new maturity.

Until that time, more and more Americans will be asking themselves, in sorrow, in amazement and in anger, as our minister asked, "How could it happen here to someone we knew and loved?"

Holley Galland Haymaker teaches medicine and Richard Haymaker is professor of physics, both at Louisiana State University.

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