Why Is the US Going Back to Executions by Firing Squad?

Business Criminal Justice cruel and unusual Death Penalty firing squad lethal injection MISSISSIPPI oklahoma Richard Moore SOUTH CAROLINA Utah
Why Is the US Going Back to Executions by Firing Squad?


This June 18, 2010, file photo shows the firing squad execution chamber at the Utah State Prison, in Draper, Utah. (Trent Nelson/Salt Lake Tribune via AP, Pool, File)

The last time the U.S. executed a death row inmate by firing squad was only 12 years ago.

At the time, Ronnie Lee Gardner was given a choice as punishment for shooting and killing an attorney and wounding a bailiff as he attempted to escape from a Salt Lake City courthouse: die by lethal injection or firing squad. He chose the latter. 

“I like the firing squad,” he told a local paper, according to the New York Times. “It’s so much easier … and there’s no mistakes.” 

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That’s not entirely true. 

Initially, almost no details were reported about Eliseo Mares’ 1951 firing squad execution in Utah for murdering a traveling soldier. Almost 25 years later, however, an eyewitness spoke up to say that Mares died “silently and horribly” when the shooters, positioned just 15 feet away, missed his heart and hit him in the hip and abdomen instead. 

Several minutes passed before Mares bled to death. 

Since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1976, only three executions by firing squad have taken place, none of them as gruesome as Mares’. But the method is experiencing the beginnings of a resurgence, largely because lethal injection is no longer as reliable, for a variety of reasons. Though Utah remains the only state to have used a firing squad in the past century, Oklahoma and Mississippi also formally adopted the method of execution in 2010. 

Now, South Carolina plans to carry out its first execution by firing squad: Three prison-volunteers, all armed with live bullets, will shoot at a target over Richard Moore’s heart from 15 feet away—the same distance as the gunmen who missed the target on Mares.  

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“I like the firing squad. It’s so much easier … and there’s no mistakes.”

Moore was forced to choose a death by either electrocution or firing squad. Although many don’t believe the 57-year-old Black man should be on death row for murder at all, he made his choice. Moore, however, doesn’t believe either method will offer him the humane and painless death promised to him by the U.S. Constitution. 

“The electric chair and the firing squad are antiquated, barbaric methods of execution that virtually all American jurisdictions have left behind,” Moore’s lawyer, Lindsey Vann, wrote in a recent motion.

Not everyone agrees. In the last several years, people across the political spectrum have thrown their support behind firing squads as the latest in a long history of execution methods promising to be the least expensive, quickest, and most humane.

In South Carolina, for example, a Democrat who says he’s morally opposed to the death penalty lead the effort to bring back the firing squad, which passed in 2021. Since then, almost $54,000 was spent refurbishing the state’s death chamber with bulletproof glass, sandbags behind the chair so the bullets don’t ricochet, and a wall with a rectangular opening through which the gunmen can point their rifles.

“The death penalty is going to stay the law here for a while,” state Sen. Dick  Harpootlian said, according to the Post and Courier.“If we’re going to have it, it ought to be humane.”

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Before that, in 2017, liberal-leaning Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a fiery dissent defending the firing squad after an Alabama inmate requested the method of execution over fears of a botched lethal injection. 

“In addition to being near instant, death by shooting may also be comparatively painless,” she wrote, also quoting multiple experts. 

How we got here

One of the first official executions to happen in the U.S. went horribly wrong. 

In 1879—just a year after the U.S. adopted the practice in its penal code—Wallace Wilkerson faced that fate in Utah after killing a man in an argument about a card game. As the hour of his death neared, Wilkerson refused any straps or a blindfold and said he intended to “die like a man, looking my executioners right in the eye.” 

But when the gunmen fired, they missed Wilkerson’s heart, hit him in the torso, shattered his arm and threw him backward out of the chair several feet. “Oh my God, my God, they have missed,” he said, looking down at his body. 

It was 27 minutes before Wilkerson could be pronounced dead.

Over the next hundred years, the U.S. eventually abandoned the practice over its gruesome nature and found new and supposedly more humane methods of execution: the electric chair, the gas chamber, and then lethal injection. 

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“There is no infallible method, and every generation seems to think that it can invent a new and more highly civilized method of putting people to death,” said Frank Baumgartner, a University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill political science professor and one of the nation’s leading academic authorities on the death penalty. 

But in a cyclical twist of fate, the use of firing squads has now returned over concerns that those more-advanced methods have turned “cruel and unusual.”

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In this Thursday, June 10, 2010 picture, Ronnie Lee Gardner raises his restrained hand as he is sworn in before speaking at his commutation hearing at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah. Next to him is his attorney Andrew Parnes. Ronnie Lee Gardner is scheduled to be executed by firing squad at midnight on June 18, 2010. (AP Photo/Trent Nelson, Pool)

The U.S. has experienced a shortage of lethal injection drugs over the last decade, often because the pharmaceutical companies that manufactured the elements of these death cocktails realized what they were being used for. 

As some states instituted moratoriums or abolished the death penalty entirely, others began using new and untested combinations of drugs to kill convicted criminals. And they didn’t always go as planned. 

In 2014, Ohio tried to execute Dennis McGuire with a two-drug execution cocktail that had never been used before. McGuire made guttural noises, gasped for air, and choked for about 10 minutes before being declared dead after. In 2018, Nevada tried fentanyl.

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Even the states that have managed to get their hands on the approved drugs—usually through laws that allow pharmaceutical companies to remain secret—have experienced problems. In 2021, the first inmate Oklahoma put to death in six years, John Marion Grant, vomited in the chairs and convulsed for about 15 minutes before being declared dead. 

In fact, Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol is the subject of an ongoing federal lawsuit from death row inmates arguing that the drugs cause an extreme burning sensation and a feeling of drowning before death occurs. In 2015, Oklahoma death row inmate Charles Warner’s final words were “My body is on fire,” before he died 18 minutes later.

To be included in the lawsuit, Oklahoma’s death row inmates had to choose an alternative method of execution. Nineteen of the 32 wanted the firing squad. Now, the fate of the inmates is in the hands of a judge. If he decides Oklahoma isn’t capable of executing inmates using lethal injection, they’ll die by their selected alternative method. 

South Carolina also cited the department of corrections’ trouble accessing the drugs used for lethal injection when it legalized execution by firing squad.

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Is it really more humane?

Since 1972, only three inmates have died by firing squad. The first, Gary Gilmore, occurred in 1977 in Utah, after he requested the method instead of hanging. Five gunmen—all local police officers—stood behind a curtain with five small holes, through which they aimed their guns. When asked for any last words, Gilmore simply replied, “Let’s do it,” the Daily News reported.

Nineteen years later, once again in Utah, John Albert Taylor requested execution by the firing squad after raping and killing an 11-year-old. He said he worried about “flipping around like a fish out of water” from lethal injection and also wanted to make a statement that Utah was sanctioning murder, according to the Associated Press. 

A group of five law enforcement volunteers—paid $300 each—shot him from 23 feet away as he wore a black hood and a target over his heart. One of the officers’ guns, however, wasn’t loaded. 

The last inmate to die by a Utah firing squad was Gardner in 2010. 

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This photo provided by the South Carolina Dept. of Corrections shows the state’s death chamber in Columbia, S.C., including the electric chair, right, and a firing squad chair, left. ( South Carolina Dept. of Corrections via AP)

With lethal injection, if you remove the gurney straps that hold the prisoner in place, the handcuffs, and the prison walls, the execution chamber looks like a harmless medical examiner’s room. The clinical nature helps ease the general consciousness of the American population, which has to make peace with the fact their government kills people. 

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That’s one positive of the firing squad, according to Baumgartner: “It’s very straightforward. You know exactly what’s happening. It’s an act of violence. It’s not trying to disguise what it really is, which is taking a life.”

But even firing squads hide behind some level of presumed propriety. Why not, for example, execute someone with a bullet to the back of the head? Because, as Baumgartner puts it, “it would be a PR disaster.” 

The more bloody the execution method becomes, the harder it becomes to distinguish it from the original crime. As federal judge Alex Kozinski wrote in 2014, “If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.”

Traditionally, one shooter in the firing squad is given a blank bullet, known as the “conscience round,” to diffuse responsibility so none of them have to feel especially guilty about the execution. A hood is even placed over the inmate’s head to dehumanize them. 

In 1913, the only inmate ever to die by firing squad in Nevada, Andriza Mircovich, had to face a metal machine outfitted with three rifles because the state couldn’t find anyone willing to kill him. 

“There’s always been something shameful about the death penalty,” said Austin Sarat, professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College and the author Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty. “That’s why we use the blank bullet. That’s why we have the people who administer the lethal drugs in a different room.” 

Many states with capital punishment also still have certain traditions intended to either comfort the inmate in their final moments or make themselves feel better about taking a life: the infamous last meal, a last cigarette, or the opportunity to share some last words. 

Moments before James W. Rodgers was executed by firing squad in 1960, he said: “I done told you my last request—a bulletproof vest.”

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