Firing Squad or Electric Chair? That’s the Choice for Death Row Inmates in South Carolina.

A new bill is part of the wave of pro-capital punishment states looking to resume executions with archaic methods.
March 3, 2021, 6:34pm
Open door to prison cell
Open door to prison cell (Stock photo, Getty Images)

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Death row inmates in South Carolina could soon have another option for their execution: the firing squad.

A bill from the South Carolina Senate is the latest move by a pro-capital punishment state looking to resume executions with archaic methods, in light of the yearslong, nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs. The Senate voted Tuesday to restart state executions after a nearly decade-long moratorium, making the electric chair the new default method and adding firing squad as an alternative. 


There’s a good chance the new bill will become law, as Republican Gov. Henry McMaster is a vocal supporter of the death penalty.

In the last five years, other Southern states have looked for ways to carry out executions despite the lethal-drug shortage that has all but halted the practice nationally. In 2015, Oklahoma approved the use of the nitrogen gas chamber to carry out the death penalty. Mississippi and Alabama followed in 2017 and 2018 respectively. In 2019, former President Donald Trump brought back the federal death penalty for the first time in 17 years, obtaining the lethal injection drugs through shady means

For years, South Carolina inmates had to choose between the electric chair and lethal injection. With the state’s supply of lethal-injection drugs expired, most death row inmates chose the method that the state couldn’t carry out. 

The lethal injection drug shortage has been a major obstacle for the 27 states that still have a capital punishment statute. In 2011, the U.S. pharmaceutical company Hospira, which once made the drug most states used for executions, stopped manufacturing the key ingredient needed for the lethal cocktail. To help drive the shortage, U.S. activists and attorneys who opposed the death penalty lobbied European nations that imported drugs that the states were repurposing for the death penalty to withhold them, according to The Marshall Project. Since then, states have either had to scramble to find a legal alternative or put a stop to executions altogether.


Of the 27 states that still allow criminals to be executed, only nine have approved alternative methods. Of those nine, South Carolina could be the fourth that allows execution by firing squad, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, joining Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah. Ronnie Lee Gardner was the last incarcerated American killed via firing squad. He was executed in Utah in June 2010.

In 2014, Tennessee approved the use of the electric chair when it couldn’t obtain the drugs needed to put prisoners to death. Over the next four years, Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma would turn to the use of nitrogen gas chambers, though none of them have figured out how to use the deadly gas in practice, according to The Appeal.

In 2019, the Trump administration managed to secure a new supply of pentobarbital, a lethal drug, from private companies. In the last year and a half of his term, Trump’s Justice Department managed to execute 13 inmates in total, including Lisa Montgomery, the first woman to be killed by the federal government in 70 years. In his final months in office, Trump even tried to bring back the use of firing squads.


President Joe Biden has yet to put an official stop to the federal death penalty since taking office in January despite openly opposing the policy while campaigning for office, and pressure from national human and civil rights groups.

South Carolina’s move follows Montana’s House vote last month to resume the death penalty,  after it had been on hold since 2015 when a county judge determined pentobarbital was deemed too tortuous.

The neighboring state of Virginia just recently abolished the death penalty, becoming the first Southern state to do so.