Trump Is Trying to Bring Back Firing Squads

Allowing the federal government to use firing squads for executions is one of 36 "midnight regulations" the administration is trying to push through before Trump leaves office.
November 26, 2020, 1:29pm
President Donald Trump walks out of the Oval Office and towards the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in Washington, to pardon Corn, the national Thanksgiving turkey.

In a final push during its last weeks in power, the Trump administration is doing everything it can to rush through last-minute policy changes, including bringing back federal execution by firing squad. 

The administration is finishing up 36 regulatory rule changes on various issues, according to reporting from ProPublica, which have the potential to affect everything from the environment to immigration to criminal justice. One of the more bizarre proposals would allow the federal government to once again execute people by firing squad or electrocution.

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“The Supreme Court has long held that death by firing squad and death by electrocution do not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment,” the administration’s proposal reads, referencing a Supreme Court case from the 1870s.

But some experts say that thinking is seriously outdated.

“What the court considered to be cruel and unusual at the turn of the 19th to 20th century would not necessarily match with what we consider to be cruel and unusual today,” Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told VICE News. “In fact, almost all the states that used the electric chair have moved away from it because of the likelihood that it would have been declared cruel and unusual punishment.”

The Trump administration’s proposal on executions could be “finalized any day,” according to ProPublica.  

The federal government didn’t execute anyone for 17 years, between 2003 and 2020. They began again this year, with the Justice Department executing more people than it had in the previous five decades

Although it’s traditional for presidents to put forth “midnight regulations” as they leave power, some of the Trump administration’s proposals have sped-up timelines. For the execution proposal, the traditional 60-day public review process was cut to 30 days, according to ProPublica. 

Dunham told VICE News that Trump’s insistence on last-minute rules without public feedback will likely cause problems for the incoming Biden administration. 

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“They will be burdened with having to unravel these additional regulations, on top of the other Trump administration policies that they want to want to undo,” Dunham said. “That will pose immediate problems in areas like environmental regulation, worker safety, and so forth, where the health and lives of Americans are put at risk by the new regulations.” 

Even if Trump successfully brings back federal execution by firing squad and the electric chair, though, that rule probably won’t be around for long. Biden has already said he’s against the death penalty, according to the Associated Press

Capital punishment has been at the forefront of the Trump administration’s exit agenda since the president lost the election earlier this month. Last week, the federal government carried out the execution of Orlando Cordia Hall.

The execution of Lisa Montgomery, the first woman set to be killed by the federal government since 1953, was originally scheduled for early December but has been delayed until  Jan. 12 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. She is one of five people scheduled for execution between now and the day President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office, according to CNN.

The federal government and 28 states still authorize the death penalty, and 10 states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Utah—permit the use of the electric chair or firing squads as a form of execution, according to the Death Penalty Info Center. All of these states use lethal injection as their primary method of executing criminals.