George Pyle: Vigilante justice only makes our streets meaner

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) West High School students listen to fellow students demand for gun reform and school safety after walking out of classes in Salt Lake, during a student walkout on Wed. March 14, 2018. Students in Utah and around the country planned the large-scale coordinated demonstration to protest gun violence and memorialize victims of last month's mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Anton Chekhov

The 19th century Russian writer was talking about the need to pare down one’s prose to the bare minimum, to not confuse the audience of his plays or burden the readers of his short stories with unimportant distractions that have nothing to do with the plot.

It was advice that, for example, 20th century murder mystery doyenne Agatha Christie made a successful career of ignoring.

Chekhov was not talking about the danger posed to 21st century society by the excessive number of under-trained, lightly regulated and self-appointed vigilantes who take it upon themselves to be armed while going about their otherwise normal lives. His wisdom, though, applies to real life as much as to literature.

A gun that is purchased and carried will beg to be fired, in anger or in fear. Otherwise, why have one?

Such a tragedy was played out the other day on a Provo street, where a young man who was apparently involved in a pretty nasty physical altercation with an even younger woman was shot to death by an armed passer-by.

Officials have not, as this is written, told us much beyond the name of the deceased, Jeremy Sorensen. We don’t know the cause of the fight, who the woman was, how, or if, she knew Sorensen, the identity of the man with the gun or why he felt moved to stop his car, get out, confront Sorensen and, when there was no response to his shouted warnings, shoot him twice.

Whether the act is ruled a crime or a reasonable act by a person who thought he was helping to prevent a greater wrong, it would help if law enforcement officials would make it clear that shooting strangers as anything other than an absolute last resort is not helpful.

It is not peace-keeping. It is not the act of a hero. It just makes our streets meaner and our lives less secure.

This is all complicated by the fact that Sorensen was a young black man, the sort of person most likely to be shot for little or no reason in the United States, either by sworn law enforcement officers or self-appointed vigilantes.

The tragedy is deepened by reports that Sorensen was a soul who didn’t always seem to fully understand what was being said to him. That he was limited in his ability to respond as most of us would respond to, say, someone who was threatening to shoot you.

There was no way the gunman could have known that, of course. But that is all the more reason why filling the streets with armed people is a really bad idea.

The chances of such tragedies rise as people who don’t know each other, don’t know what is happening, who might be at fault, who poses a real danger, adopt the brutal T-shirt philosophy of killing them all and letting God sort them out.

If we don’t act, through law and, more effectively, through culture, to make it clear that a society lousy with guns is not a safe one, then the only alternative for many — especially, perhaps, young black men — will be to seek to even the odds by carrying their own guns. The spiral will only continue, financially enriching gun makers and dealers while culturally and emotionally impoverishing everyone else.

It is easy to put this tragedy down to a culture where popular entertainment is engorged with gun violence. But that not only relieves each of us of our own moral agency, it also disrespects our pop culture heroes.

Seriously, can anyone imagine that Marshall Dillon, Sargent Friday, Commander Bond, Captain Kirk or Master Kenobi would have shot first and asked questions later like that?

If we haven’t learned that lesson from our role models, and if we don’t understand that guns carried in Act One should be seen as guns that will be fired by Act Three, then we shouldn’t be carrying them in the first place.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has seen every Superman TV show or movie ever made. But he does not think he can fly.