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Why are states considering firing squad executions?

A flurry of new proposals is largely in reaction to a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs, as well as botched executions.
Posted at 5:06 PM, Apr 18, 2023

For 40 years, lethal injection has been the standard for capital punishment in the U.S. And while overall U.S. support for executions has dropped, some states are doubling down on capital punishment — specifically more gruesome methods like the electric chair, firing squads and even gas chambers. 

This flurry of new proposals has largely been in reaction to a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs, as well as botched executions. 

Pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Hospira have made significant efforts to keep their drugs out of execution chambers — refusing to sell to corrections departments, completely cutting off production of certain drugs and suing states to stop their drugs from being used. 

Dr. Austin Sarat is a law professor at Amherst College and a nationally recognized expert on the death penalty. "The death penalty is in trouble in the United States. The death penalty system in the United States is a broken machine. It's broken at the guilt phase; we know the number of people that have been exonerated from death row. It's broken at the sentencing phase; we know the role of race in sentencing. And it's broken when we get around to executing people," Sarat said. 

The change in availability of these drugs has led to experimentation and, in some cases, tragic results. 

The Death Penalty Information Center called 2022 "the year of the botched execution," citing seven of 20 execution attempts that were "visibly problematic." 

In 2010, Utah carried out the only firing squad execution of the last 50 years. But states like South Carolina are pushing to reinstate the practice. 

"Ladies and gentlemen, like it or not, it's a scary, horrible, terrible thing — they deserve to die," said Sen. Stephen L. Goldfinch.

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The South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments in January to decide if the electric chair or a firing squad should be considered cruel and unusual punishment. A ruling is not expected for several months 

This court battle comes after the governor passed a law making the electric chair the default method of execution, and added the firing squad as an alternative option. 

Rev. Hillary Taylor is the executive director of South Carolinians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

"If we have execution methods that are, quote, unquote, constitutional, that are already causing profound harm and moral injury to people. I can only imagine what the firing squad will do," Taylor said. "These are the people that we sentence to death row. It is not the worst of the worst. It is people who have been made powerless in so many different ways." 

Idaho recently followed South Carolina's lead, passing a similar law allowing execution by firing squad if lethal injection is not available. 

"As long as our law demands justice then we have to have a method for carrying it out," said Sen. Scott Herndon.

In total, five states — Idaho, Mississippi, Utah, Oklahoma and South Carolina — have re-introduced firing squads as an authorized method of execution. 

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Meanwhile, Alabama is building a gas chamber to carry out capital punishment in the future. 

And one lawmaker in Tennessee proposed lynchings on the Tennessee statehouse floor before ultimately apologizing for the suggestion. 

"I think the resurrection of the firing squad or the electric chair is a sign not of the strength of the death penalty. But of its weakness," Sarat said. 

Sarat says the public opinion shift on capital punishment and the slowdown of executions nationwide far outweigh these changes in death penalty policy. 

According to the Death Penalty Information Center 37 states have now abolished the death penalty or not carried out an execution in more than a decade. 

Plus the five-year average of new death sentences, 26.6 per year, is the lowest it's been in 50 years.