Twenty years after Mieko Hattori’s 16-year-old son, Yoshihiro, was fatally shot while studying in America, the outspoken mother has once again called for tighter gun control laws in the United States and around the world. Her latest speech was delivered in Baton Rouge, the town where 20 years ago her son went to the wrong house on Halloween night and was killed after the owner pointed a gun at him and told him to “freeze.” When he moved, the owner shot him dead in the driveway.

It takes courage and strength for a Japanese woman to deliver a message that many Americans disagree with. Her commemorative speech in a Baton Rouge church last week was a powerful plea to reconsider the role of guns in society. Whatever one’s opinion on gun ownership, Americans, like Japanese, have to respect her for exercising her right to freedom of speech. Her message may have been rooted in her personal tragedy, but she expressed the broader hope that the U.S. work for a safer society and that all nations work to realize a world free of guns.

Ms. Hattori was fearless enough to give her talk in a country where the National Rifle Association (NRA), a nonprofit lobbying group that promotes firearm ownership, dominates public discussion on the issue in part by spending huge amounts of money (it reportedly spent $10 million during the 2008 presidential campaign). Members of Congress ranked the NRA as the most powerful lobbying organization in the U.S. Ms. Hattori’s voice may seem small compared with such well-funded lobbyists, but her voice should receive just as much attention in the halls of Congress, and around the world.

Ms. Hattori has done more than speak up. Using money they were awarded in a civil suit against the man who shot their son, the Hattoris established a fund to bring U.S. high school students to study in Japan. So far, 20 American students have traveled to Japan. The program is a meaningful way to turn their son’s memory into cross-cultural understanding and a nonviolent exchange.

With some 270 million privately owned firearms in the U.S. and four out of every 10 households owning at least one weapon, America has 12,000 gun homicides a year and 17,000 suicides using guns. Among the world’s 23 wealthiest countries, 87 percent of all children killed by guns are American. In other words, since Yoshihiro Hattori’s death 20 years ago, roughly 580,000 people in America have been killed by guns.

That does not make Hattori’s death any less significant, but it does remind the world that the right to safety and to life is just as important as the right to gun ownership, and that one family’s tragedy deserves attention, as do the tragedies of all families.

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