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With Few Lethal Injection Drugs, Firing Squad Gaining Steam

Utah's firing squad bill may be closest to law, but many states are reconsidering the once-abandoned method of execution.
Posted at 2:11 AM, Mar 13, 2015

With Utah's legislature passing a bill to bring back the firing squad and a shortage of lethal injection drugs facing the states, expect to hear more debate about this once-abandoned method of execution. 

KSTU reported Wednesday, "Senators voted 18-10 in favor of the bill tonight. It would be a backup in the event lethal injection is not available."

Utah's bill puts it closest to being the next state to use the firing squad, but similar efforts are also taking place in other states. 

Wyoming's state House of Representatives approved a firing squad bill last month, and similar measures have been introduced in Missouri, Arkansas and elsewhere. 

Fox News's Megyn Kelly said, "Texas is next. They're about to run out of the lethal injection drugs, and they too may have to do what Utah is doing, as well as a couple other states. We may be having death by firing squad in quite a few states."

All of the bills stipulate that lethal injection is still the state's preferred method of execution, and that firing squads would only be used if lethal injection drugs weren't available. But that now seems a matter of when, not if, their stockpiles run out. 

Drug maker Hospira stopped making one of the drugs used in lethal injections in 2011. 

As supplies dried up, states began using their own untested cocktails, but that resulted in botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona where it took between 25 minutes and nearly two hours for inmates to die. (Video via AZCentral.com)

That's part of the way legislators are selling the firing squad to the public: that it's actually more humane than lethal injections with untested drug cocktails. 

The representative behind Utah's bill told Al Jazeera, "The firing squad happens within 3-5 seconds, so if you really want the quickest, most humane way to put somebody to death, the firing squad is certainly one of those options."

And they might actually have a point. One researcher told NPR last year, "I've looked at every execution between 1890 and 2010. There are more botched lethal injections than any other technology used during the course of the 20th century."

Utah's last firing squad execution was for convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner. Here's how a victim's family member described the scene. (Video via CBS)

"They put the hood on his head and we waited for just a few minutes. You heard the gunshots go off and then you saw he quit breathing, he died," said Craig Wilson to KSL-TV

Ironically, one of the main reasons states adopted lethal injection is because it was thought to be more humane — downright peaceful, even. In the wake of the botched executions, those both opposed to and in favor of the death penalty say that was always just meant to make the public more comfortable. 

Last year, a 9th Circuit Court judge lamented lethal injections for making execution look "serene and peaceful," saying, "If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf."

MSNBC host Chris Hayes, on the other side of the aisle, made the same point in response to the Utah bill. 

"At least it's reliable. So is beheading, Saudi Arabia's method of choice, or hanging, how Iran executes its prisoners. All these methods may be brutal, but they are at least honest."

In addition to firing squad, there are several states that still allow electrocution, hanging or even the gas chamber. Utah is the only state to execute someone by firing squad since the death penalty was re-instated in 1976. 

This video includes images from Richard Jackson / CC BY NC SA 2.0, Tommy Woodard / CC BY 2.0 and Getty Images.