On Bringing Back the Firing Squad

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Florida State Rep. Brad Drake is taking heat for suggesting the state bring back the firing squad. He’s actually sort of right. But as is usually the case when a politician says something sort of sensible, he’s right in ways he didn’t really intend. Drake wants to bring back the firing squad because, “I have no desire to humanely respect those that are inhumane.”

In fact, for the person actually getting executed, the firing squad is probably more humane than the lethal injection. I got into this a bit in a piece for Huffington Post a couple weeks ago. When we debate the the humaneness of executions, we’re usually talking about what effect they have on everyone except the person we’re killing.

A 2005 study in the Lancet found that as many as four in 10 of those executed may have been given inadequate anesthesia.

A large dose of a single barbiturate would kill just as effectively and painlessly. Opponents say pancuronium bromide isn’t necessary, and it masks any indications a prisoner may be experiencing pain. But as The New York Times’ Adam Liptak reported in 2008, defenders of the three-drug procedure offer an interesting argument in response. “[L]awyers for John D. Rees, the Kentucky corrections commissioner, said the three-chemical combination was safe and painless and produced a dignified death,” Liptak wrote. “Using only a single barbiturate, they said, was untested, could result in distressing and disruptive muscle contractions, and might take a long time.”

Liptak went on to write about how the state of Texas came to adopt the three-drug protocol. “[T]he medical director of Texas’ corrections department, Dr. Ralph Gray, consulted a veterinarian in Huntsville, Tex., Dr. Gerry Etheredge,” Liptak wrote. Etheredge says he told Gray that in veterinary medicine, they used a single barbiturate, and that, “we overdosed it and everything went smoothly. It was very safe, very effective and very cheap.” The problem, Etheredge said, is that Gray feared “people would think we are treating people the same way that we’re treating animals. He was afraid of a hue and cry.”

These anecdotes are telling. Rather than subject witnesses to unnerving post-mortem twitching by prisoners who are experiencing no pain, prison officials instead use a procedure that leaves open the possibility of immense, unimaginable pain, but also ensures that witnesses will see no signs of it. We’ve shunned the effective, painless procedure regularly used in veterinary medicine because we don’t want to give the appearance that they’re treating prisoners like animals. But in the process, we may be treating them worse.

Jonathan Groner, the trauma medical director of Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio and a death penalty opponent, told ABC News in 2008, “One of the great ironies about capital punishment when you look at it historically is that when executions appear to be more humane, the application of the death penalty becomes less humane.”

When Utah death row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner asked to die by firing squad last year for the 1985 murder of a defense attorney, there was some consternation that such a frontier method of execution could still even be an option in America. (It’s only still used in Utah, and only at the request of the condemned.) But a number of experts say death by firing squad is swift, relatively painless and less likely to go wrong than other means of execution. Groner told ABC News the least painful method of execution may be the guillotine.

But the idea of bringing back firing squads or the guillotine would make most Americans cringe — even ardent death penalty supporters. That we’d recoil from the idea suggests that we’re gauging the humaneness of state executions not by the swiftness and painlessness they provide for the condemned, but by the amount of discomfort they arouse in the rest of us. We prefer the method of execution least likely to remind us that it’s actually an execution. And that suggests that we may not be as comfortable with executions as we think.

None of this changes the fact the fact that Drake is a grandstanding buffoon. It’s just worth pointing out.

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38 Responses to “On Bringing Back the Firing Squad”

  1. #1 |  Mad Rocket Scientist | 

    If we are unwilling to see death in all it’s gruesome glory, maybe we don’t need to be killing people for vengeance.

    Maybe we need to redo the way we administer the death penalty. If a person is condemned to die, the only way they can be executed is if a family member or friend of the victim is willing to step up & pull the trigger.

  2. #2 |  BamBam | 


    Firing squad is even less effective than drug injection. Even if the single bullet that is fired (the rest are blanks) hits the perfect spot on the target, there is no guarantee that it will have the same effect on every target.

    Firing blanks doesn’t assuage the guilt of those doing the firing. Shooting a blank vs shooting a real cartridge have very different recoil. Everyone doing the firing knows exactly who had the bullet and who did not. MYTH BUSTED

  3. #3 |  Juice | 

    The most humane execution method for the condemned is hanging. Snaps the neck and it’s over in an instant.

  4. #4 |  Deoxy | 

    Actually, as I understood it, there’s either one or NO blanks in the bunch. I’ve never heard of “all blanks except one” for a firing squad.

    Back OT, I’ve advocated on this very blog that we use firing squad, hanging (with a good drop distance), or even guillotine, and for several reasons: effectiveness, relative painlessness, and OBVIOUS and gruesome death (that is, if they deserve to die, we better be willing to know they are dead, and accept it).

    In terms of pain and suffering for the executee, I’d think a large explosive going on at very close proximity would be the most painless, actually – the brain would be literally blown apart before it could process any pain. Messy, inefficient, and gross, but utterly painless. IDing the body afterwards (a useful thing, I’d think, just to be sure) would be problematic, though.

    Anyway, I’m a death penalty supporter (assuming we can fix the innocence/guilt determination problems in our system), and I’d certainly support bringing back the firing squad.

    But then, I’d also support making it public, too – nobody should be comfortable with executions (even those who believe they are the right thing to do).

  5. #5 |  Wonks Anonymous | 

    I’ve heard people say that the guillotine really is the most humane method of execution. Unfortunately, it developed a very bad reputation so we came up with more techno-wizardry that seems more modern.

  6. #6 |  DoubleU | 

    BamBam… Only one casing lacks a shell… and you are not first.
    However some firing squads work with one shot…

  7. #7 |  M | 

    So his goal is to make it cruel, but not unusual?

  8. #8 |  Jim | 

    One of the local hack newscasts had an interview with this blowhard and just to show how unserious he is about the issue he also throw out a suggestion that they be thrown off the Sunshine Skyway (bridge in the Tampa area).

  9. #9 |  FTP | 

    Somewhat off-topic, but is the United States the only country to have developed relatively high tech execution methods? I seem to recall reading that France used the guillotine until they abolished capital punishment in the 1970’s. The British, I believe, used hanging up untl the end. Eichmann was hanged in Israel in the mid-sixties (I think).
    This country, on the other hand, seems to have gotten quite creative in devising new methods. The electric chair must have been among the first “consumer” applications of electricity. We also seem to enjoy having discussions about the relative virtues of each method. What this says about our character, I’m not certain. Maybe we’re an inventive, forward-thinking people, free from the constraints of tradition. Maybe we’re a macabre people. Either way, it’s interesting.

  10. #10 |  Aresen | 

    Interesting story (possibly an urban legend) about the electric chair.

    There was a debate about whether it was ‘better’ to use alternating current or direct current.

    Westinghouse, whose electric products used alternating current, advocated that direct current be used.

    Edison, whose electric products used direct current, advocated that alternating current be used. Edison proposed that the word “westinghoused” be used to describe execution by the electric chair.

  11. #11 |  Ed Godard | 

    I saw a recent clip of Rosanne Barr (you know- the serious presidential candidate) calling for the guillotine for financial executives. It seemed to get some rah-rah response from supporters. The left and right sure do trade places a lot these days.

  12. #12 |  Rick H. | 

    Areson: The history is even more grisly – http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/01/dayintech_0104
    Science and markets (sort of) win in the end, but Edison is still a creep.

  13. #13 |  EH | 

    I bet “Dr. Ralph Gray” is an interesting story.

  14. #14 |  supercat | 

    //#7 | M | “So his goal is to make it cruel, but not unusual?”

    Punishments for serious crimes are supposed to be cruel, and sometimes unusual punishments may be appropriate, provided they are no more cruel than the usual ones (e.g. a defendant may be given a choice between going to jail for six months, or spending 12 hours per week for twenty weeks performing some particular not-terribly-pleasant task related to the consequences of his particular crime). What would be forbidden would be a punishment which would be grossly out of line for the crime committed.

  15. #15 |  Julian | 

    There are two major issues can occur with hanging: strangulation (with full, partial or no internal decapitation) and external decapitation.

    While drop tables exist and could even be improved upon, there are mitigating factors that will never eliminate the chance of something going wrong during a hanging. Musculature, bone density, knot placement and non-vertical motion during the event can all have an impact on whether the neck is cleanly broken with enough force to cause instant death, or the individual end up strangling to death (or is externally decapitated).

    There has been some study on the effects of nitrogen as a humane method of execution by asphyxiation. Seems to be painless and surprisingly fast (based on reports of numberous accidental deaths). In addition, organ donation would be a viable option.

    While I do think there are some crimes that warrant the forfeiture of life, I don’t support the death penalty, based on the fact that there has never been (or will ever be) a government that could be trusted to use it without some sort of bias.

  16. #16 |  BamBam | 

    One or more may have a blank, this is easily found with internet searches. My point still stands: everyone knows who had the blanks due to recoil felt. The diffusion argument is bogus.


  17. #17 |  MH | 

    Your point doesn’t stand at all: you provided no evidence that only one live round is normally used, which doesn’t sound plausible to me, and the same Wikipedia article you cite also notes that in Gardner’s execution a wax round was used in one of the guns, which was supposed to create the same recoil effect as a live round.

  18. #18 |  Ted S. | 

    #4 Deoxy wrote:

    But then, I’d also support making it public, too – nobody should be comfortable with executions (even those who believe they are the right thing to do).

    Reminiscent of the Ruth Snyder execution in 1928:


    The incident was loosely dramatized in the wonderful James Cagney movie Picture Snatcher

  19. #19 |  JOR | 

    Executions were more common and more public in times when people were quite simply more comfortable with killing or seeing other human beings killed, often for things that we would not care about, or brush off (making fun of the king, or cheating at cards, or the equivalent of “Yo mama . . . !”. If they become more public and common I suspect it will be part of a general increase in social violence as a result of people placing less value on life (their own and that of others).

  20. #20 |  Aresen | 

    @ | Rick H. | October 13th, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    Thank you for that bit of info.

  21. #21 |  LRuane | 

    The guillotine being the most painless method puts a new light on the unmitigated outrage the neoconservatives expect us to feel about the barbarousness of the beheadings practiced in some Muslim parts of the world.

  22. #22 |  Paul | 

    The only merciful execution is a swift one.

    I think the legal process leading up to an execution is designed to be as cold and drawn out as possible. A slim hope is held out to the defendant for years on end, right up to the moment of execution. The legal system strongly resists allowing a defendant just give up and be swiftly executed. This is ostensibly to protect a defendant’s rights, but in fact it serves the state’s interest in prolonging the suffering.

    This is an unconscious, but real part of the way the state handles executions. The nasty 3 drug cocktail did not start out being intentionally cruel, but administrators of the death penalty realized the method of execution was indeed quite cruel without appearing to be so, which serves their purposes perfectly.

    I also think the rituals surrounding the execution itself have evolved to be as cruel as possible while appearing to be merciful. First, there is the many years on death row, designed to let the prisoner get comfortable with the idea of living in captivity for the rest of his life, yet always with the cloud of impending doom hanging over their head. Then there is the last minute flurry of appeals, and finally the grim final steps of your final meal, visits by the priest, inspection by the “doctor” (no doctor true to his oath should have anything to do with this), the death watch, and the worst part: The phone ready for the last minute call from the governor.

    People self select for their jobs in life. This is why the violent are attracted to policing, and firemen have a greater percentage of pyromaniacs in their ranks than in the rest of the population at large. It does not mean that all cops are violent by nature, of course, but a greater percentage than normal. Just so with prison guards, prosecutors, judges and the like. A certain sadistic turn of mind is drawn to these extremely unpleasant professions.

    Thus, the law and the rituals and trappings of executions appeal to this sort of mind and have been shaped by it. It is no accident executions are cruel–it is very much intentional.

  23. #23 |  millerized | 

    Personally, the convicted should be fed into a running salt encrusted wood chipper with flails and not blades, hung feet first from a winch and lowered into it as fast or as slowly as dictated by a call in counter, like one of those voting for XXXXX dancer on dancing with idiots. More calls ‘for’, the faster you die, the fewer calls, the slower the winch unwinds.

    Friday nights, about 9pm would be best, televised and sponsored by a company that produces chippers, winches or the guy with a herd of hogs that gets the ground up bodies for feed. Oh….and the bill for the gas and subsequent cleaning of the chipper should be sent to the family of the convicted, now mashed, individual.

    Or a single bullet to the forehead. Survivors get $1,000,000.

  24. #24 |  togolosh | 

    If you absolutely must kill convicts the most humane way is the Chinese approach: A single bullet to the back of the head at close range. The bullet passes directly through the cerebellum, causing instant death. There’s no way to pretend that the killing is anything but brutal (as all killing inherently is) due to the fact that it is often accompanied by a gout of blood pouring out of the mouth immediately after death as the person slowly topples over. It is as humane for the condemned as possible and it doesn’t let the people endorsing judicial killing pretend that it is anything other than state sanctioned murder.

  25. #25 |  2nd of 3 | 

    “But then, I’d also support making it public, too – nobody should be comfortable with executions (even those who believe they are the right thing to do).”

    Why would the public be uncomfortable with executions? Didn’t they used to be fairly popular public spectacles in the old days? I doubt many more people would turn against the death penalty if it were out for all to see. Not saying it shouldn’t be public though.

  26. #26 |  Dave Krueger | 

    “…pancuronium bromide isn’t necessary, and it masks any indications a prisoner may be experiencing pain.”

    Well, of course, Silly! It’s not used because of what it does for the person being executed, you ninny! It’s for the people watching.

  27. #27 |  Lloyd Flack | 

    At a lot of executions when they were public spectacles the crowd was heckling the executioner. Hard to tell what would happen now. Would public executions brutalize the public and lead to an increase in murders? It is hard to tell.

    Paul is right about any execution being inhumane if someone is kept prisoner for a long time before being killed. But I don’t think it is because of sadism. I think it is because they want to see themselves as just and humane while still indulging in self righteous vengeance. And they genuinely do want to at least see themselves as trying to avoid miscarriages of justice. To minimize this risk they have to take their time but this increases the inhumanity of their actions. There is no way to have the humanity of swiftly carrying out a sentence and stiil take half way reasonable efforts to prevent wrongful executions.

    The ritualization is to make it easy on those doing the killing and those watching. The aim is not sadism but in attemping to avoid the appearance of vengeance and make it feel like dispasionate justic sadism creeps in.

    I agree that if you are going to do it a bullet to the head is how it should be done, instantaneous but obviously violent. Claims that beheading or hanging bring about immediate unconsciousness are dubious. How can injury to the spinal cord bring about unconsciousness? Unconsciousness will come fron lack of blood supply to the brain. Probably several seconds with beheading and somewhat longer with long drop hanging. And the victim will be in agony for a good part of that before drifting into an anoxic daze. In attempting to create the appearance of humanity the US has often created inhumane execution methods. The gas chamber was the worst. It was a torture device. Not intended as such but that is what it was. And with lethal injection the long time required to prepare a victim for killing makes it inhumane.

  28. #28 |  Maggie McNeill | 

    #21: An episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents was based on that exact premise. Brian Keith played a university professor wrongfully convicted of murder who refused to participate in the game of appeal and reprieve; he recognized it as a sadistic game designed to torture the prisoner and told his attorney the only “reprieve” he would accept was a full pardon.

    ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0508137/ )

    Of course, since it’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents there’s a twist…

  29. #29 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Bullets are messy and I always thought they aimed for the chest rather than the head (except when some Nazi major is executing a kneeling Jew by shooting him in the back of the head).

    If I were executed by a firing squad and they shot me in the head, I would ask for an open casket at my funeral. Maybe I’d have them put long thin sticks in all the holes to show the angle of bullets like they do at crime scenes. On the end of each stick would be a tiny American flag.

  30. #30 |  Deoxy | 

    So his goal is to make it cruel, but not unusual?

    I’ve always thought that would work just fine – that is, whatever is defined by law as the punishment for a certain crime is, by definition, USUAL, not unusual.

    Probably several seconds with beheading

    I once heard that some academic type in the French Revolution promised that he would blink his eyes as long as he could afterwards, and it was several seconds. Not sure if that’s true, but certainly believable.

    Gotta go with “bullet to the back of the head” as probably the most instantaneous (other than powerful explosive) – anything that immediately destroys the brain will prevent any pain being felt.

  31. #31 |  lhfree | 

    Execution is a lot more humane than the supermax hells in America. I don’t know why this country thinks it has the right to put people in those solitary concrete toilets for decades. Sick.

    As for the firing squad in Utah it’s because some Mormons feel that murder can only be atoned for by spilling their own blood I think that’s why Utah condemned man Ronnie Lee Gardner chose to die that way. I thought there was only one blank and all the rest of the rifles were loaded. Some commenters have mentioned there’s only one live round and the rest are blanks.

  32. #32 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Punishments for serious crimes are supposed to be cruel…

    I disagree.

    1. Victims (or family) are not put in charge of the punishment for very good reasons. And yet, many victims are against cruel punishments…for very good reasons.

    2. What is a serious crime? Certainly putting a few million people out of work, crashing their home equity, and devaluing there savings are “serious”. But no one will assign cruel punishment for a banker.

    3. Hate the sin, love the sinner. Justice is handed out in the next life, not this one. Or so I’ve been told.

    4. The prisons are full of mental illness (of all types). Cruel punishment does nothing to solve a problem, make anyone better, or make society safer.

    5. Incarceration, not cruel punishment, and the state has the obligation to make this humane regardless of the prisoner.

    It is not humane to subject any prisoner to violence.
    It is not humane to keep any prisoner in a small room for decades of life.
    It is not possible to get the revenge that you seek.
    It is not possible to remain guiltless while cruelly punishing those that broke your precious, precious rules.

  33. #33 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Lots of dreaming here going on about bullets and quick deaths. If you really want this, don’t use standard weapons.

    Build something from the ground up. Two steal plates that collide instantly to crush the skull to a millimeter flat. Put a few hundred thousand pounds of pressure behind it.


    Now, we can kill instantly. Look how smart we are.

  34. #34 |  MH | 

    “Some commenters have mentioned there’s only one live round and the rest are blanks.”

    No, I believe only one commenter said so, and provided no evidence to back it up.

  35. #35 |  Windypundit | 

    Once again, everybody is missing the obvious solution: If we were really serious about keeping it painless, we’d execute people by blowing them up. Just set off a block of C-4 right at the base of the skull. The blast wave travels much faster than human neurons can transmit signals, so the brain would be gone before it knew what happened.

    You’re welcome.

  36. #36 |  JOR | 

    “Hard to tell what would happen now. Would public executions brutalize the public and lead to an increase in murders?”

    That might happen. What would certainly happen would be a general willingness, even enthusiasm, to extend the use of capital punishment far beyond convicted murderers. The state being what it is would of course happily oblige.

  37. #37 |  Open Thread And Link Farm: It’s Fucking Magic Edition | Alas, a Blog | 

    […] On Bringing Back the Firing Squad | The Agitator So lethal injection may actually be an extremely cruel and painful method; less painful methods are easily available, but aren’t used because they wouldn’t be as comfortable for spectators to see. […]

  38. #38 |  Katherine | 

    “In addition, organ donation would be a viable option.”

    There doesn’t need to be an additional incentive to execute.