Utah Gov. Gary Herbert got so worked up over the many fires raging in the state last week that he dropped the S-word.
No, not that S-word (where is your mind, anyway?). I’m talking about the one that means the opposite of smart; the one many of you have told small children not to use when describing each other. OK, I’ll spell it out — stupid.
A few days ago, someone in Herriman parked a car over some tall, dry grass. The hot underside of the car ignited the grass, and the flames spread like a wild contagion in the hot mid-day sun. Four houses were destroyed and hundreds of acres burned before firefighters brought things under control.
It wasn’t the first such fire this summer. A target shooter near the dump in Saratoga Springs started a fire there that burned out of control, leading to thousands of evacuations. As I write this, new fires seem to be popping up everywhere around the state.
All of this prompted the governor to say it in blunt terms. “We can meet together and pass law after law after law. But you can’t pass a law that outlaws stupid.”
Which, some would argue, is a sign that Utah truly has a representative government, given the ideas some lawmakers have tried to turn into laws through the years.
But I digress. With the flames circling about us in the midst of a season in which people feel an inherent right to play with incendiary devices under the hot sun, the state song may soon be changed to those classic lyrics of the ‘70s band Stealer’s Wheel, “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”
And yet, stupidity doesn’t confine itself to just one side in this burning issue. Two weeks ago, as the Saratoga Springs fire raged, I blogged about the need to restrict fireworks. My Twitter feed and online comments soon filled with angry posts about the “nanny state” and how irrelevant my comments were because that fire was started by target shooters, not fireworks.
The governor himself, after railing on the stupids, met for 90 minutes behind closed doors with legislative leaders and attorneys to try to decide whether to call a special session to restrict target shooting. He emerged to tell the media the issue was “complicated.”
House Speaker Becky Lockhart said, “We’re not interested in any way in limiting people’s right to carry firearms in their own interest.”
I doubt many evacuated or displaced Utahns are worried about the Constitution; nor should they be. One does not need to limit a person’s right to bear arms in order to limit where and how that person may discharge those arms.
In the end, politicians handed the issue to the state forester, saying he had the power to ban target shooting in unincorporated areas, which he subsequently did.
However, the Saratoga Springs fire was started in an incorporated area.
This isn’t a new issue. Human nature imbues a large percentage of the population with something that finds fire and explosions fascinating and attractive, and history shows this often triggers acts that can be described charitably as stupid.
You don’t have to spend a lot of time in newspapers archives to find evidence of this. On July 5, 1899 the Deseret News ran a front-page rundown under the headline, “Damages of the Fourth.” On Independence Day in that halcyon year, three people died and 1,074 were injured nationwide. Of those, 627 were hurt by “cannon firecrackers” and 143 by guns and revolvers.
Unlike other states, Utah has a fireworks season that is book-ended by the Fourth and the 24th, making the whole month a time for matches and sparks.
Absent any move by the state, several cities and counties have imposed their own restrictions. But many of these create quilts of restricted areas that generate more confusion than reassurance.
No, we can’t outlaw stupidity. That doesn’t mean, however, that the rest of us have a corner on intelligence.
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Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist of the Deseret News. He has nearly 40 years experience as a reporter, editor and editorial writer in Oklahoma, New York City, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. He also has been an adjunct journalism professor at Brigham Young and Weber State universities.