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COMMENTARY: No to S.C. firing squads
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COMMENTARY: No to S.C. firing squads

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Jordan Barkin

South Carolina will soon become the fourth state to allow firing squads for capital punishment.

The New York Times reported on May 7 that Bill 200, "approved by the State House (...) appears almost certain to become law in the next few days, and is being lauded by Republicans, including Gov. Henry McMaster, who have been vexed by pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to sell states the drugs needed to carry out lethal injections." The South Carolina State Senate already approved the bill in March 2021.

This measure to allow firing squads in South Carolina will probably pass despite the fact that a 2014 NBC News poll that showed only 12% of Americans supported firing squads.

The reasons for public squeamishness regarding firing squads are many, but I believe the main reason is that Americans view the method of execution as old-fashioned. I also believe that those Americans who have hunted with guns -- and there are many -- know that getting a clean shot is not an exact science. For example, some birds take more bullets to incapacitate. Some deer struggle for a longer time before dying.

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Add into the equation that the state is executing humans, not wild animals, and many citizens become more reticent to pull the proverbial trigger.

The founders were also experienced when it came to hunting, fighting and suffering. Maybe that is why they adopted the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution in 1791 to ensure that: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." Back then, more scientific methods of capital punishment such as lethal injection had yet to be invented.

I believe that, in today's era of highly accurate science, the firing squad is an antiquated method of execution because there are too many variables and too few controls. How greatly will the criminal suffer, and for how long? How many bullets should be used, and where should they hit?

Michael Conklin stated it best in The Seattle University Law Review: "Hurling projectiles toward an inmate in the hopes of causing cardiac failure, asphyxiation, or some other condition that will result in death, is far from an exact science."

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If reading about such gruesome violence sickens you, then imagine being the person shooting one of the guns. Or the person receiving the bullets.

Edward C. Halperin, M.D. M.A., chancellor and chief executive officer of New York Medical College, wrote in The Hill, "The death penalty is disappearing from most of the civilized world, because it is not a deterrent to crime, and it is applied unfairly. It is the sad and unenviable legacy of John C. Calhoun and South Carolina to continue the state's assault upon human life by defending a death penalty that falls disproportionately on people of color and by adding firing squads to its tools for execution."

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ACLU of South Carolina agreed with Halpern, noting on its website, "South Carolina’s death penalty is racist, arbitrary, and error-prone."

I am not sure of the best method to punish and deter South Carolina's worst criminals, but riddling them with bullets is not the answer.

Jordan Barkin is a columnist published by USA Today, McClatchy, Gannett, Hearst and other media outlets. He is a former associate editor of Hearst Magazines.

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