The firing squad is making a comeback.
The nation’s oldest and most arcane method of execution is rising in popularity, with several states and even inmates calling for its return, saying it’s a more humane form of execution than lethal injection.
It also is seen as a solution to the shortage of lethal injection drugs that have left states with a death row backlog.
The South Carolina House this week voted to add a firing squad to the state’s execution options and sent the bill to Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican who said he will sign it. The state has been unable to buy the drugs needed for lethal injections.
Meanwhile, a death row inmate in Nevada is asking to be executed by firing squad. He said it would be faster and less painful than the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injections. An inmate in Georgia also sought to die by firing squad, but an appeals court last month denied his request.
The search for a humane, reliable and safe method of execution has thrust firing squads back into the spotlight. From 1608 to 2010, 143 executions were carried out by gunshot, most of them in the 19th century.
Proponents say a firing squad offers several advantages, including the use of trained professionals to carry it out, a lower likelihood of a botched execution and a more compassionate way to die.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is among those who have argued in favor of the firing squad.
In 2017, the Supreme Court denied a request by an Alabama death row prisoner who wanted the state to fatally shoot him rather than use lethal injection drugs.
Justice Sotomayor wrote a blistering dissent accusing her colleagues of endorsing an execution method that could be cruel and inhumane.
“In addition to being near instant, death by shooting may also be comparatively painless. And historically, the firing squad has yielded significantly fewer botched executions,” she wrote.
Opponents argue that the U.S. abandoned the firing squad decades ago because it was too brutal and backward. They say the chance of something going wrong is just as high as with other forms of execution, including injection and electrocution.
“Firing squads were abandoned because it reminds us of the very thing we are trying to prevent by carrying it out, which is a gruesome criminal event that was likely carried out with a gun,” said Austin Sarat, who teaches law at Amherst College.
The debate over firing squads has reemerged amid a shortage of lethal drugs and several bungled injections.
South Carolina has several inmates in line to be executed, and three of the state’s 37 death row inmates have exhausted their appeals. But the lethal injection drugs have expired, and the state can’t buy any more.
Under current state law, inmates can choose between the electric chair or lethal injection. Because the drugs are unavailable, condemned inmates choose injection, effectively blocking their executions.
The lack of drugs also has forced prosecutors to pursue life sentences over the death penalty in some cases.
The South Carolina bill, which passed the House by a 66-43 vote, would require death row inmates to choose between a firing squad or electric chair if lethal injection drugs are not available.
Once the bill is signed into law, South Carolina will become the fourth state to bring back the firing squad. The others are Utah, Oklahoma and Mississippi, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
“We’ve had lethal injection since 1977, and you have a state like South Carolina conceding that there are so many problems with it they have to go back in time,” said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University, who has argued that firing squad is the most humane method of execution.
As Ms. Denno sees it, a firing squad is more compassionate because it requires marksmen who are skilled in taking shots resulting in immediate death. That is more effective than relying on prison volunteers to administer an injection that doesn’t always take hold, she said.
“With lethal injection, it varies widely on who is implementing the drugs,” she said. “We don’t know if the person is going to be skilled in lethal injection in the way police or military are trained to shoot to kill.”
Mr. Sarat said there is no way to ensure an execution won’t be bungled, regardless of the method.
“Since nothing humans do is infallible, there can be no infallible method of execution,” he said. “It is not a question of whether the execution will be botched, but a question of how often it will be botched.”
Bungled injections in Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona persuaded Utah to bring back the firing squad in 2015.
The last person executed by firing squad in the U.S. was Ronnie Lee Gardner, who died in 2010 in Utah. Although he was put to death after the state abandoned firing squads in 2004, he was able to choose that option because he had been sentenced before the decision.
Under the 2015 law, a firing squad can be used only if no lethal injection drugs are available. Gardner remains the last person executed in Utah.
While some may view the firing squad as more humane for the inmate, others have raised questions about whether it causes post-traumatic stress for the shooters.
Vietnam recently abandoned the firing squad in favor of lethal injection because of the trauma experienced by the shooters.
Ms. Danno said such stress may be less likely in the U.S. because trained police and military shooters will carry out the executions.
“These are people who have been trained to shoot to kill,” she said. “They have been trained with the idea they may have to end up killing someone.”
The debate over firing squads is not going away anytime soon.
Zane Floyd, who was sentenced to death for killing four people in a 1999 Las Vegas shooting, petitioned the Nevada state court last month to let him die by firing squad.
Nevada no longer uses firing squads, but Floyd said lethal injection could cause “unconstitutional pain and suffering.” He said state law requires him to choose an alternative method of execution.
Also last month, a federal appeals court in Atlanta refused to consider death row inmate Michael Nance’s request to die by firing squad.
Nance, who killed a 43-year-old man during a carjacking after a bank robbery, argued that his veins are so narrow that lethal injection could give him excruciating pain. The court said it could not consider his request on procedural grounds.