Earlier this week, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster signed a bill that would force death row inmates to choose between two methods of death: either the electric chair or a firing squad.
The bill is an open attempt to restore the state’s ability to kill, which for years has been stymied by the nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs. That shortage is driven by several factors, the simplest being that American drug companies have realized that the potential profits from a murder drug do not outweigh the bad PR that making a murder drug would bring. Several states have attempted to use other drugs, and have received support from the courts; in 2015, the Supreme Court approved the continued use of a drug called midazolam even after it was responsible for several botched executions, including one that caused its victim to writhe and gag for 43 minutes before dying.
The cruel irony of our current system of institutionalized murder is that lethal injection was designed and popularized as a more “humane” way of ending a life. It transforms the violent act of murder into something resembling a medical procedure, one done with a minimum of sound and fury, dispassionately, behind closed doors in small hot rooms that only a select few ever have to bear entering. A person lies on a bed, a tube running into their arm. If everything goes as planned, they make only small movements and gasp, and then they are dead, and “justice” is done.
Journalist Elizabeth Bruenig, after witnessing a federal execution in 2020, wrote in the New York Times that capital punishment is “too absolute a penalty for a trial process so utterly limited… both arbitrary and prone to bias.” This is true. But the methods that we use only serve to reinforce this system, to convince people that the end result of a death sentence is justice and not murder, that a human being who has committed terrible transgressions is being quietly put down, and not killed with the same violence and depravity that they allegedly exhibited in life.
I have seen enough death in my life to know that it is never dignified. Bodies bleed and rot, abandoning nearly all recognizable humanity the moment a person’s consciousness has fled. The only thing you can hope for is that death is swift. Lethal injection is not swift but it is silent, insulting its victims by the absence of any spectacle in what is being done to them. I say this not to advocate for more death, but to explain that moving from hangings and shootings and beheadings did nothing to civilize us as a society. It only served to mask the clear moral injustice of a faceless state taking the life of an individual.
Which brings us to a bullet. A firing squad is as amoral as any other form of capital punishment, but at least it is honest, and at least it is swift. It also appears to be far more humane: Sonia Sotomayor, arguing fiercely for an inmate’s right to choose the firing squad in 2017, noted that execution by gun has never failed to kill, while lethal injection is responsible for botching 7 percent of all the murders it has committed since 1890. The last use of a firing squad for a state execution in the United States was in 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was shot by five correctional officers with .30 caliber Winchester rifles in the state of Utah. A .30-30 round is a large bullet, roughly the size of a fat pencil eraser, or a bit narrower than the tip of your pinky finger. When it impacts flesh, it fragments and tumbles, pulverizing whatever vital organ it is aimed at. In the case of a firing squad, this is always the heart. In 2010, the death squad fired four bullets; one shooter’s gun held a blank, to ensure that the burden of guilt was shared among all five men. Gardner was declared dead just two minutes later. The near-total drop in blood pressure that follows a massive trauma to the heart means it’s unlikely he was conscious, aware or in pain for much more than a few seconds of that time.
This means that McMaster’s bill is a perfect example of the strange, hypocritical broken clock of Republican policy. The bill is monstrous, because its only purpose is to expand the state’s ability to kill. It is not monstrous, as many seem to think, because it proposes ending lives with a bullet. The injustice of the death penalty is that it allows the state to end a life. The state cannot be held responsible for murder in the way that an individual can; there is no punishment that can be leveled or restitution that can be demanded from it that even approaches justice for that crime. The system of capital punishment is built on this principle, of sheltering the people responsible for death from all consequences of ordering it. How many juries would sentence someone to death if they knew they would have to carry out the act itself? How many governors would pass such a bill if they knew they would have to pull a trigger?
My only hope, to this end, is that any widespread reintroduction of the firing squad will change public opinion of the death penalty, which 54 percent of Americans still think is morally acceptable. I hope that its very clear violence will force us as a society to reckon with what we do to the people we condemn to die. And if Republicans’ thirst for blood over-corrects so much that it gives some of those people the choice of a cleaner death, so be it. In the absence of justice, a bullet is the least we can give.