All states that carry out executions do so primarily via lethal injection. In Texas, as in most other states, it’s the only legal method by which to execute prisoners. But as lethal injection drugs get more difficult to obtain, the question of whether to switch to other execution methods is going to be a conversation we have, both in Texas and elsewhere. And that conversation might have been jumpstarted by a state representative from Utah, who proposed a bill last week that would bring back an old-school execution method that doesn’t require European-manufactured drugs: The firing squad.
Rep. Paul Ray, a Republican from the northern Utah city of Clearfield, plans to introduce his proposal during Utah’s next legislative session in January. Lawmakers in Wyoming and Missouri floated similar ideas this year, but both efforts stalled. Ray, however, may succeed. Utah already has a tradition of execution by firing squad, with five police officers using .30-caliber Winchester rifles to execute Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010, the last execution by rifle to be held in the state.
Ray argues the controversial method may seem more palatable now, especially as states struggle to maneuver lawsuits and drug shortages that have complicated lethal injections.
“It sounds like the Wild West, but it’s probably the most humane way to kill somebody,” Ray said.
The last execution carried out in Texas via firing squad was for the crime of desertion, and it took place in August of 1864, so there’s not exactly a long tradition in this state for the method. Before outlawing all methods besides lethal injection, we favored hanging and electrocution. (Firing squads—like most means of execution—weren’t singled out to be banned in Texas, or in most other states. In 1977, Texas passed a law stating that all executions would be carried out by lethal injection.)
The relative “humane” characteristics of the firing squad didn’t originate with a lawmaker in Utah. The body of research on execution methods—which is, for obvious reasons, fairly limited—back up Ray’s claims. As Margot Sanger-Katz summarized for Slate :
[T]he limited body of research on death penalty methods suggests that the firing squad is actually a pretty good way to go. A Utah inmate who in 1938 agreed to be gunned to death while hooked up to an electrocardiogram showed complete heart death within one minute of the firing squad’s shots. By contrast, a typical, complication-free lethal injection takes about nine minutes to kill an inmate.
There is also some evidence that fatal gunshot wounds of the kind sought by executioners are not only relatively swift, but also not terribly painful. According to a 1993 study of the relative pain associated with different execution methods, gunshot gets the highest rank when compared with lethal gas, electrocution, hanging, stoning, and other popular methods. (The paper assumes that the executions go off without a hitch, and gives lethal injection similar high marks.)
Utah only outlawed the firing squad in 2004, and it carried out its last execution in that manner in just 2010 (most states that went exclusively to lethal injection allowed for inmates who chose other methods before those laws passed to be grandfathered in). At the moment, though, no state allows executions to be carried out by firing squad—though Oklahoma law will allow it in the event that lethal injection and electrocution are found to be unconstitutional.
There are no mistakes in a firing squad. When you have four trained marksmen aiming at the heart of a still target from a short distance, at least one of them is going to hit it. (Prisoners executed by firing squad are shot through the heart.) If it’s so effective, though, it raises the question: If firing squad executions are more humane, quicker and less painful, then why are they banned?
That’s something that Sanger-Katz explored after the last firing squad execution in the U.S., back in 2010:
Why did the states drop firing squads in the first place? Death penalty scholars say that legislators tend to like lethal injection because it appears dignified and medical. It also seems to create less media frenzy. When Utah officials were planning the state’s most recent firing squad execution, they were met with interest from the international press, repeated comparisons to Old West justice, and a flurry of volunteers offering their services as executioners. Maybe firing squads get people going not just because they’re unusual, but because they cater to a certain bloodthirstiness and obsession with guns. And because they seem like a more heroic way to die. In 1996, just before that previous execution, state Rep. Sheryl L. Allen sponsored legislation to phase out the firing squad, saying that it gave the state an image of “brutality.”
All of those are understandable reasons why lawmakers might choose to abandon firing squads, but they’re also reasons to reconsider them.
When lethal injections are successful (as most of the time they are), they disconnect death, as punishment, from death, as process. A bloodless, antiseptic killing seems like an ideal, but it can hide what is actually happening—the fact that someone is being killed. Keeping this process discreet attracts less media attention and avoids the appearance of “brutality”—but does it also prevent us, the people in whose name the executions are carried out, from recognizing what we’re, as citizens, authorizing?
With a firing squad, the visceral reality of what an execution really is—killing a person—is more evident. There are aspects to that that would need to be considered. What are the effects of a more visceral execution on witnesses from the families of the convicted and/or the victims? What are the effects on those in the firing squad? Does that sort of killing change the perception of justice obtained by an execution? Is there ultimately a difference between a bloody and bloodless death?
Those who’ve seen such executions in person have certainly remarked upon it as a heavy experience:
One of the few people ever to witness execution by both firing squad and lethal injection in the U.S., [former Utah reporter Paul Murphy] says injections are like watching a ‘minor operation in hospital’, while death by firing squad is ‘more of an honest execution. It more accurately depicts what has happened. A man is being put to death’.
The daughter of Ronnie Lee Gardner, the last man executed via firing squad, meanwhile, said:
“He believes he needs to pay for what he’s done,” the killer’s daughter, Brandie Gardner, told reporters before the execution. “But at the same time, people should know that what they’re doing is murder.”
We’ll probably disagree in this state whether executions are murder or justice for as long as people keep committing crimes—And because firing squads have been used so infrequently in recent years, there are few people whose reactions can be gauged. Subsequently, there are few voices that speak out against this method of execution, perhaps simply because it’s so rare. The widow of one of the men murdered by Gardner expressed her discomfort with the method of execution in 2010, but seemed to indicate that her opposition was to the death penalty specifically. Another widow, meanwhile, seemed to endorse it:
Donna Nu calls the firing squad barbaric. Nu was the partner of Michael Burdell, the attorney Gardner murdered. She and Burdell’s family said Michael wouldn’t have wanted Gardner to die. “He certainly wouldn’t want to be the reason that Ronnie Lee was killed,” Nu says.
But for VelDean Kirk, death by gunfire is appropriate for the man she says destroyed her husband’s life.
She remembers once seeing on TV a lethal-injection chamber used for a notorious killer. “That just looked like a hospital,” Kirk says. “I didn’t like that a bit. I didn’t think that was fitting for a person that had done the crimes that he had done.”
There’s no indication based on the possible Utah law that firing squads are on the horizon in Texas. We have nearly a year to go before the legislature reconvenes, and though the increasingly urgent issue of how to continue to carry out executions will probably need to be addressed in some way, as a state that stopped using firing squads 150 years ago, it may not not be a popular notion.
(AP Photo/Trent Nelson, Pool, File)