Last month's failed execution by lethal injection brought up a lot of questions about the death penalty. It also, apparently, encouraged Rep. Paul Ray to bring back the firing squad. That's his plan, anyway — the Utah lawmaker hopes to put forward his proposal during the state's next legislative session as soon as January and, seeing as Utah has a history of killing its criminals this way, there's a (horrifyingly) good chance it'll go through.
The last man to be executed by firing squad in Utah died only four years ago — although the state banned the form of execution in 2004 (because it didn't want the media attention, not out of humanitarian concerns), it still allowed those who'd been given the death sentence beforehand the option to choose it. And Ronnie Lee Gardner did just that: he was shot by five police officers using .30-caliber Winchester rifles in 2010.
"It sounds like the Wild West, but it's probably the most humane way to kill somebody," Ray said to the AP. He continued, "The prisoner dies instantly. ... It sounds draconian. It sounds really bad, but the minute the bullet hits your heart, you're dead. There's no suffering."
Ray's not the only congressman to suggest bringing back the firing squad; Rep. Rick Brattin wanted to add it as an option for carrying out the death penalty in Missouri because it's "no less humane than lethal injection." Republican state Sen. Bruce Burns also suggested bringing back the firing squad to Wyoming, because of the "trouble" of getting the right drugs for lethal injection. Both bills failed, but the question of whether lethal injection is really less gruesome has remained.
"The idea of someone being executed by firing squad in the modern age
is very disturbing. However it would be a mistake to assume that, up
close, death by lethal injection is any less so," writes Anna Chadwick, of the rights group Reprieve.
In fact, a recent Gallup poll suggests that Americans
don't see the firing squad as the worst choice — actually, after lethal
injection, it's considered the most humane option there is. Only 4 percent think the electric chair is more humane than lethal injection, with 5 percent supporting hanging. Still, though, an overwhelming 65 percent believe that death by lethal injection is humane — only 9 percent think that of a firing squad.
Said Austin Sarat, author of Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty, in an interview with Wired: "We don't talk much about it because in 120 years there were only 34 executions. It's not been an important technology in part because it seemed to be unusually gruesome. As the courts have interpreted the 8th Amendment, they've said executions have to be compatible with the evolving standards of decency in society, and I think the firing squad is hard to square with that kind of commitment."
Although Ray's proposal was motivated by the botched execution of an Oklahoma inmate last month, general public opinion about the death penalty actually hasn't changed all that much. As it stands, 61 percent think the death penalty is morally acceptable, down by only one percent since last year.