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Execution by firing squad

Execution by firing squad is a method of capital punishment, especially in times of war. A firing squad is a group of people (usually soldiers) who are ordered to shoot at the condemned criminal simultaneously.

No single member of the firing squad can save the criminal's life by not firing, reducing the moral incentive to disobey the order to shoot. (see diffusion of responsibility)

Executions are usually carried out with high-caliber rifles to facilitate a quick death. The condemned may be seated or standing but is usually restrained. The condemned is often hooded or blind-folded.

In some cases, one member of the firing squad is issued a gun containing a blank cartridge instead of one with a bullet, without telling any of them who got it. There are two theories supporting this practice. First, each can hope beforehand that he will not be one who contributes to the killing. This is believed to reduce flinching and to make the execution proceed more reliably. Second, it allows each of the soldiers a chance to believe afterward that he did not personally fire a fatal shot. While an experienced marksman can tell the difference between a blank and a live cartridge based on the recoil (the blank will have much lower recoil), there is a significant psychological incentive not to pay attention and, over time, to remember the recoil as soft.

The firing squad is commonly used to execute spies. It is often considered a particularly honorable method of execution, and as such is often not used for war criminals who are hanged.

Execution by firing squad is distinct from other forms of execution by firearms such as the "single shot from a handgun to the back of the neck" practiced by the People's Republic of China.

Use of Firing Squads in the US

According to Executions in the U.S. 1608-1987 by M. Watt Espy and John Ortiz Smylka, it is estimated that 142 men have been judicially shot in the United States and English-speaking predecessor territories since 1608, excluding executions related to the American Civil War. The Civil War saw several hundred firing squad deaths but reliable numbers are not available.

Capital punishment was suspended in the USA between 1967 and 1976 as a result of several decisions of the United States Supreme Court. It was "re-launched" by the execution of Gary Gilmore on January 17, 1977 at Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah by a five-man firing squad. The executioners were equipped with 30-30 rifles, one loaded with a blank. They fired at a seated and hooded Gilmore from about 6 meters, aiming at the chest.

Since Gilmore's death, the only other executions by firing squad in the United States have been in Utah. The method is legal only in Utah, Idaho, and Oklahoma. In Utah, up until 1980, if the condemned refused to choose a method then the firing squad was mandated. Thirty-nine men have been executed in this manner in Utah. As of January 2004, the last was John Albert Taylor on January 26, 1996.