by Judith Evans
An inmate is strapped to a chair and blindfolded. A white circle is placed on their chest, over the heart. Six sharpshooters form a firing squad behind a veil, about 20 feet away from the inmate. The sharpshooters raise their rifles and aim through a narrow opening in the veil. At the signal, they fire their guns simultaneously at the inmate’s heart.
After the bullets fly, a medical examiner checks the inmate’s pulse. If the shots are accurate, death occurs after about 10 seconds of excruciating pain. If the bullets miss their mark, the inmate may bleed to death for several minutes — a result that has occurred in the United States and other countries.
Execution by firing squad is now a legal alternative to lethal injection in Idaho due to Idaho House Bill 186. Introduced by Representative Bruce Skaug (R-Nampa), the bill was passed by the House of Representatives on March 3 and the Senate on March 21. Governor Brad Little signed it into law on March 24.
Problems Obtaining Lethal Injection Chemicals
Proponents of House Bill 186 point to Idaho’s inability to obtain pentobarbital, a chemical used in lethal injections. Skaug states that the lack of pentobarbital makes it impossible for the state to carry out executions. Pentobarbital is a Schedule II controlled substance and a strong sedative that, in lethal doses, prevents breathing. Pharmaceutical companies are increasingly refusing to sell the drug for use in executions.
The problems surrounding the use of pentobarbital have resulted in dubious transactions and lengthy litigation. To carry out executions in 2011 and 2012, Idaho officials purchased pentobarbital from questionable out-of-state sources. In March, the state delayed the execution of Gerald Pizzuto for the fourth time; this was the second time the execution was delayed due to the inability to obtain the drug.
Claims that Firing Squad is More Humane
In support of House Bill 186, Skaug also makes the suspect claim that the firing squad “is humane in part because it is certain.” While acknowledging that execution by firing squad can result in “10 seconds of extreme pain,” he argues that it is more humane than lethal injections, which are “botched 6 percent to 8 percent of the time.”
It is true that there is a horrific history of botched lethal injections. Examples range from prisoners gasping and writhing in pain to executioners struggling for hours to find a vein for the IV needle. But firing squads are not immune from botched executions either. During a 1951 execution in Utah, Eliseo Mares bled to death for several agonizing minutes after the shooters hit his abdomen and hip instead of his heart.
Opposition to Reinstating Firing Squad
Since the introduction of House Bill 186, Idahoans have expressed opposition to allowing the use of firing squads. Arguments against this method of execution range from the cost to taxpayers to more humanitarian concerns.
Opponents point out that, before executions by firing squad could take place, the state would have to refurbish the Idaho Department of Corrections firing squad facility. The project would likely cost taxpayers $750,000.
Even if the facility is modernized, opponents note that the use of firing squads would be challenged as “cruel and unusual punishment,” which is forbidden by the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In 2009, the Idaho legislature repealed the use of firing squads, citing constitutional concerns. South Carolina’s Richland County Court ruled in September 2022 that executions by firing squad violate the Eighth Amendment. The court stated that the execution method, which damages the heart, bones and surrounding tissue, constitutes torture.
People who oppose the use of firing squads also cite the potentially traumatic effect they have on the executioners themselves. Professor Andrew Novak of George Mason University, who studies the death penalty, states that members of firing squads may suffer from post-traumatic stress after participating in an execution.
Most Recent U.S. Executions by Firing Squad
Firing squads have been used three times in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. All three executions took place in Utah. Most recently, Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed in 2010 after he chose to die by firing squad rather than lethal injection.
Although firing squads were legal in Idaho from 1982 to 2009, the state has never used this method of execution. There are currently eight people on death row in Idaho. The state’s only execution has been a death by hanging in 1957.
It’s Time Abolish All Forms of the Death Penalty
Supporters of Idaho House Bill 186 have presented death by firing squad as a humane alternative to lethal injection. But it seems ludicrous to argue that 10 seconds of extreme pain from a firing squad — assuming the execution is not botched — is a preferable, more humane way to die.
The Idaho state legislature should be protecting individuals from violence, not inflicting violence. Killing by firing squad is a brutal, bloody act. Should state officials be entrusted with the power to take a human life? Our criminal justice system should be designed to prevent aggressive violence against all human beings and uphold the inherent dignity of every individual.
Idaho politicians and corrections officials can direct their energy toward cultivating a restorative, life-affirming legal system. Instead of arguing about which agonizing death is preferable, why not develop a system that restores relationships? It’s time to abolish all forms of the death penalty and turn our attention toward the health of our community.