Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


firing-squad

Death by firing squad. (PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Why Don’t We Just Shoot Condemned Inmates?

• November 20, 2013 • 4:08 PM

Death by firing squad. (PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION/SHUTTERSTOCK)

If we’re going to kill people, there’s only one good way to do it.

No matter what your stance is on the death penalty, it’s hard to work up much sympathy for the man executed by the state of Missouri this morning. Joseph Paul Franklin was, without exaggeration, a white supremacist serial killer. His preferred targets were Jews, blacks, and anyone connected to interracial couples. During a three-year spree beginning in 1977, he murdered at least seven people, may have killed 15 more, and wounded civil rights leaders Vernon Jordan and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt for good measure. His victims include a father of three leaving a bar mitzvah, and two teenage African American boys.

But the most striking thing about Franklin’s case isn’t why he was killed, but how. He was among the first prisoners in America’s history to be executed by lethal injection using only a single drug—the sedative pentobarbital. Ever since lethal injection was introduced in the 1970s, virtually every state has used a combination of three drugs: one to put the inmate to sleep, the next to paralyze his muscles, and the last to stop his heart. That protocol has come under withering fire in recent years, however, from activists and medical professionals citing a growing body of evidence that indicates the process isn’t always as painless as it looks; in many cases, in fact, the prisoner may remain conscious but paralyzed, unable to scream or thrash, as her heart is slowly squeezed to a stop. One result is that chemical companies have stopped selling those drugs to prisons. Hence Missouri’s switch. (Other states are trying different drugs for their own executions.)

I honestly think that if we’re going to execute people, we as a society should have the integrity and the honesty to face up to the fact that that is what we’re doing.

But there’s something absurd about this whole debate. Here’s the thing: We—the American body politic—have decided we are going to commit the ultimate act of violence against condemned inmates. That is, we are going to kill them. And yet, having made that decision, it’s as though we are so conflicted about it that we have to tie ourselves in knots trying to carry out this most heinous of acts nicely. We have phased out hanging, the electric chair, and the gas chamber in an attempt to find a way to kill a man or woman in an inoffensive way. And now we’re trying to find just the right chemical to shoot into a man’s bloodstream to end his life as palatably as possible.

Listen: I oppose the death penalty. I do so primarily for two practical reasons. One, I believe our legal system and human beings in general are so imperfect that we can never know for certain that we have convicted the right person. Two, the death penalty is applied in such an arbitrary way, and the deck with which it’s dealt out is so blatantly stacked against those with no money and/or dark skin that it can’t be considered “justice” in any remotely meaningful sense.

That said, I honestly think that if we’re going to execute people, we as a society should have the integrity and the honesty to face up to the fact that that is what we’re doing. By all means, let’s do it in the most humane way: strap them to a gurney, just as we do with lethal injection, and then shoot them in the head.

Why not? Because it’s barbaric? No more so than other forms of killing. A bullet to the head is a quick and painless way to die, far quicker and more certain than lethal injection, or any of our other historically favored methods.

Because who would pull the trigger? If it seems too much to have someone actually standing there holding the pistol, the gun could be mounted on a stand and triggered remotely by an executioner standing unseen in an adjacent room. Again, that’s how lethal injection is typically carried out.

Because it would create a sickening mess? Yes, it would. That would require some special preparations and clean-up. But again, that process would leave no doubt as to what actually happened.

Let me say again: We should abolish the death penalty. But if we’re going to have it, let’s stop pretending that we’re doing anything nobler than actually killing people.

Vince Beiser
Vince Beiser is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @vincelb.

More From Vince Beiser

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.