A controversial bill to bring back executions by firing squad, passed the Republican-dominated Utah House on Friday, by a 39-34 vote. Utah requires a minimum of 38 votes to pass legislation through the House, so the measure had just one vote to spare. The proposal would allow the state to execute inmates by firing squad if the drug cocktail needed to perform a lethal injection were unavailable at the time of a scheduled execution.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bill Ray (R-Clearfield), tried to steer the debate away from discussion of whether the death penalty itself should be called into question. Ray argued that because the state has the death penalty, the legislature needs to be responsible for choosing how the death penalty is carried out. He maintained that death by firing squad was more humane than other alternatives like electrocution, gassing, and hanging.
Many House Democrats strongly argued against the measure. African-American lawmaker Sandra Hollins (D-Salt Lake City), voiced her objection, questioning not only the method of killing, but also the rationale for the death penalty itself. She stated:
The death penalty disproportionately affects my community. The death penalty also is not fairly given across socioeconomic status, racial or gender lines. …I refuse to vote yes on a bill that gives a tool to carry out the death penalty.
House Minority Leader Brian King (D-Salt Lake City), was equally critical. Calling death by firing squad, “cold-blooded execution”, he argued:
This is not just a conversation about different ways of the state putting people to death. It’s a question about moral and fiscal responsibility and whether the state of Utah chooses, or not, to be a moral and fiscal leader on such a controversial topic.
Several Republican lawmakers had misgivings about reinstating firing squads as well. Rep. Stephen Handy (R-Layton) expressed concern that bringing back deaths by firing squad would harm the state’s image with tourists. He opined:
If we do this, if you think that we have problems with air quality and other things with the image of the state of Utah, to bring back the firing squad would be going down that path.
Utah ended the practice of allowing inmates to be slated for death by firing squad in 2004. The last execution by firing squad in Utah took place six years after that decision. Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed on June 18, 2010, by a team of five marksmen armed with .30 caliber Winchester rifles. Prior to Gardner’s execution, the last Utah execution carried out by a firing squad was in 1996.
Executions by firing squads seem to be growing in popularity with Republican lawmakers in the West. On Thursday, Wyoming’s House approved death by firing squad. Wyoming, which borders Utah, is similarly dominated by Republicans. However, unlike Utah, Wyoming currently has no prisoners on death row. Both states will need the measures to pass through the State Senate and be signed by their respective Governors in order to become law. However, because Republicans control each legislative chamber and the State House in both Utah and Wyoming, the laws stand a reasonable chance of passing.
To most of the developed world, the Death Penalty seems inhumane and antiquated. The United States, however, has never abandoned the practice, although it is outlawed in several states. However, in the American West, lawmakers seem eager not to move forward to a nation interested in restorative justice. Instead, they seem much more inclined to return to 19th-century style methods of execution. The Utah House has taken a step backward. The only question now is whether the Utah Senate and Governor will follow suit.
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Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.