South Carolina Poised to Be Fourth State to Allow Death Penalty by Firing Squad

The South Carolina House passed a bill on Thursday allowing the state to execute death row prisoners via firing squad. The measure now goes to Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who has said he will sign it into law.

If McMaster signs the bill, South Carolina will be the fourth state to allow the firing squad as a method of execution for those sentenced to the death penalty, joining Mississippi, Utah and Oklahoma. Currently, the state allows executions through lethal injection and electrocution. The state has 37 people on death row, and three are in line to be executed.

Executions in the state have been temporarily paused because of a shortage of lethal injection drugs. If the bill is signed, however, the default execution method in the state will change to electrocution, giving the people slated to be executed a grisly choice between death by electrocution or by firing squad.

The bill, which passed 66 to 43, had overwhelming Republican support with only seven GOP legislators voting against and one Democrat voting in favor. Opponents of the bill condemned it as inhumane.

“Three living, breathing human beings with a heartbeat that this bill is aimed at killing,” said Democratic state Rep. Justin Bamberg, reports the Associated Press. “If you push the green button at the end of the day and vote to pass this bill out of this body, you may as well be throwing the switch yourself.”

Many progressive advocates contend that all forms of capital punishment are inhumane. The death penalty is historically tied to lynchings and today remains an issue of racial justice.

Seventy-seven percent of the people currently awaiting federal execution and 55 percent of people within state prison death rows are people of color, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU). And, while white victims make up about half of murder victims, the ACLU says, 80 percent of cases resulting in capital punishment sentences involve white victims.

Opponents of the death penalty have condemned death by firing squad as an inhumane aspect of an already barbaric practice. Will Matthews of the ACLU pointed out that when Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed in the summer of 2010 in Utah — the last person to have been executed by this barbaric method — unbeknownst to the five executioners, one of them was set up to shoot a blank instead of a live bullet.

“There is no greater symbol of the deep-seeded moral ambiguity we as a society feel about capital punishment than the use of this blank, which is intended to allow each squad member to reassure themselves that they were not necessarily the one who killed Gardner,” Matthews wrote just before Gardner’s death. “If we are so sure that capital punishment is morally acceptable, why is this blank necessary?”

When people are executed by firing squad in Utah — the only state that has employed this method to kill people in modern times — they have a target placed on their heart, and shooters aim through slots in a wall set up 25 feet from the chair.

Shooters are chosen from among officers who volunteer to kill the prisoner, and officials say that there’s never been a dearth of volunteers. By contrast, it’s often difficult to find doctors willing to administer the lethal injection used to execute people.

Death by firing squad is unpopular among the U.S. public, with many mistakenly believing that lethal injection is a more humane option. But lethal injection is also decried as inhumane by many because it has been known to prolong the process of death over an hour or even two (in cases where the execution was botched) while causing excruciating pain to the victim. Public support for the death penalty as a whole is also on the decline.

Former President Donald Trump remains in favor of administering the death penalty by firing squad, and under his administration, the government carried out more executions of federal prisoners than any president in over a century. In fact, Trump went on a death row killing spree during his last months in office, overseeing an unprecedented 13 executions in five months.

President Joe Biden, in contrast, has come out against the death penalty, and advocates have urged him to commute all federal death sentences to save the lives of those on death row and to prevent future administrations from killing them. Advocates are also encouraging Biden to work to end the “life without parole” — also known as “death by incarceration” — sentences that are often proposed as a default alternative to the death penalty.