There’s something of a John Ford western in the tale of Wayne Scott Creach and the August night he ventured out of his house shirtless and carrying a gun.
It sounds like a story of craggy Western individualism. The notion of a property owner taking the law into his own hands has become strangely appealing in these times of reactionary politics and heightened suspicion of public institutions. The brash romanticism of this idea conveys a rugged energy right out of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
Yet it’s so tragically wrong.
We’ll never know Creach’s thoughts on that night nearly a year ago because under a nearly full moon in the parking lot of his family business, The Plant Farm, he encountered a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy. While the gun Creach was carrying didn’t fire, Deputy Brian Hirzel’s did. In just a few minutes, Creach’s life was ending.
The evening was most likely a tragic set of coincidences. It’s possible both the property owner and the deputy were well-meaning but misguided. Both made hasty, unfortunate decisions.
The public has most heavily scrutinized Hirzel’s actions, and Creach’s family has understandably expressed a range of difficult emotions, including anger.
But the first significant mistake that night was made not by the deputy but by the property owner.
Crime continues to decline in the U.S., and Spokane Valley in particular has a fairly low crime rate, according to a ranking by CQ Press. Out of 400 cities with populations over 75,000, Spokane Valley ranks way down on the list of dangerous cities at No. 292. And yet, property owners like Creach feel justified in brandishing handguns for protection.
Granted, while violent crime continues to decline in Spokane Valley, last year property crime rose. Nonetheless, residents have a range of possible reactions. They can join together with neighbors to increase surveillance of their block, they can call law enforcement, and they can install more lights, higher fences or more security cameras.
One of the ironies of this story is that Creach was also a popular pastor and the founder of Greenacres Baptist Church.
The sheriff’s department reported that this pastor made a habit of patrolling his property himself and holding intruders at gunpoint until deputies could arrive. Deputies say they repeatedly warned Creach of the risks of this practice, and that one night Creach followed a prowler, threatening to “blow his head off.”
Creach may have been within his rights to protect his property with a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol, but that doesn’t necessarily make it wise. Smoking in bed, driving a motorcycle down an Idaho highway without a helmet, and binge drinking are all within our rights, but they’re also highly dangerous.
Clearly, the way we view gun ownership depends on our life circumstances. A 2010 Pew Center survey found that older white males, evangelical Protestants and residents of rural areas and the Deep South believe it’s more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns. Blacks, Hispanics, women (particularly single women), and residents of the Pacific states (Washington, Oregon and California) believe it’s much more important to control gun ownership.
The latter group would point out that Creach had several choices on the night of Aug. 25. He might have called his neighbors and found out one had called the police for protection, he might have called 911 himself, and he might even have gone to sleep and let a possible intruder steal the chrysanthemums. Had he made any of those choices, he’d be alive to work at The Plant Farm again this summer.
As gun ownership proliferates in the United States, too many Americans see Creach’s choice as justifiable. Yet several studies by a former emergency room physician indicate that a gun in a home is far less likely to ward off an intruder than it is to kill or injure a family member.
The pastor illustrated one last, terrible lesson for us on that August night: Taking the law into your own hands, frontier style, can be a deadly mistake.