The relative rarity of firing squad executions should caution anyone against extrapolating too much from Sarat’s data. Of the 8,776 executions that took place between 1890 and 2010, only 34 used firing squads. Even before the advent of modern technologies such as electrocution, the gas chamber and lethal injection, firing squads were still relatively uncommon. Another dataset of executions going back to the 17th century, compiled by death penalty historians M. Watt Espy and John Ortiz Smykla, shows that of 15,269 executions that took place in the United States between 1608 and 2002, only 144 were carried out by gunshot.2 Many of those 144 executions, especially those conducted in the 19th century or later, took place in Utah, which held on to the firing squad as a method of capital punishment long after other states had rejected it as antiquated and barbaric, in part because of an arcane Mormon belief in “blood atonement” — the idea that a murderer must literally shed his blood to be forgiven by God. From 1977, when the death penalty began to be implemented again after a short hiatus imposed by the Supreme Court, only three executions by firing squad have taken place. Even Utah finally removed the firing squad from the books in 2004, driven by concerns from legislators that continuing to offer it made the state appear primitive, although it was formally reinstated in 2015.
“Americans tend to want the death penalty to be as sanitary as possible,” said Andrew Novak, a professor at George Mason University who studies the death penalty in the U.S. and abroad. “It’s an act of state violence, but we don’t want it to be violent.”