Discussions of the sort of actions undertaken by Garrett are often put as a matter of means and ends. That has always struck me as about as damning an indictment of this awful age as there could be. Was there ever a more trivial and useless question than, "Does the end justify the means?"
Well, turning the stove on certainly is justified by the end of making tea. Warm toes justify putting on wool socks. I won't go one but I'm sure you get the point. Every day we make decisions where the ends plainly do justify the means. Of course we never think of it in terms of means and ends for the simple reason that that distinction is terminally useless. The fact that I want tea and warm toes is the only justification needed. What was the point of the question about ends and means again?
Some people have tried to salvage the question by being more precise. They say, the real question is, "Does the end justify any means?" To which the answer is plainly "no!" but no one has ever wondered about that. The question is, given a good end, is this means justified?
(As a rule, any time we run into someone who tells us that we can clear up moral issues by getting clear about definitions and meanings, we should be on guard. It's not that such a thing is impossible but it is very unlikely that a moral question that has troubled a lot of people is susceptible to such a solution.)
To get back to the ends and means question, when was the last time you remember asking yourself a question like that? It doesn't come up often does it?
Pat Garrett had a question that can look like a means -and-ends question in the abstract but was actually no such thing. He was out to arrest a man who was already convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. The man had escaped from prison and had killed two men, killed two law officers, in his escape and that is another hanging offense. He may not have gone into the situation determined to simply execute Billy the Kid but I'm sure he had determined that the Kid's personal safety was pretty low on the list of priorities. He probably figured he was going to shoot at the slightest provocation and that strikes me as the right choice.
Yes, he may have dramatized his role a bit later but that strikes me as a minor offense at best.