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Firing Squad and Gas Chamber Closer to Reality in Three States

Bills pushing for backups to lethal injection have been making progress in state legislatures.

The comeback of the firing squad and gas chamber inched closer to reality in three death-penalty states over the last week as lawmakers fretted that lethal injections may one day become impossible because of drug shortages.

In Wyoming, the House voted to make a firing squad the new alternative method of execution, with the stipulation that inmates be rendered unconscious before they are shot. The bill now goes to the state Senate, although some are questioning why the measure is even necessary since Wyoming's death row is empty.

A bill to bring back firing squads in Utah has narrowly passed a divided legislative committee. The state currently gives inmates sentenced before 2004 a choice between lethal injection and bullets, but the proposal would make firing squads the default if execution drugs can't be found.

Utah — which has a long history of firing squads, rooted in the now-repudiated Mormon tradition of blood atonement — last used one in 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner said that's how he wanted to die.

Meanwhile, two lawmakers in Oklahoma are pressing the state to adopt an untested protocol — nitrogen gas, which starves bodies of oxygen — as a backup method.

“The death penalty is a just and appropriate punishment for our worst criminals, and nitrogen hypoxia is recognized as one of the most humane methods for carrying out the sentence,” said Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, who authored one the measures advancing through the state legislature.

“It is important that the Legislature act to ensure the will of the people of Oklahoma will not be dismissed by the courts.”

A high concentration of nitrogen can render someone unconscious in a few breaths, provoke a coma within a minute and eventually cause convulsions and death by hypoxia, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

Critics say that because it hasn’t been tested as an execution method it’s impossible to know how much pain or suffering an inmate might experience, and they pointed to some gruesome episodes with poison gas in the '80s and '90s.

"When you start experimenting with things, you sometimes get unexpected consequences," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. "They're winging it and that's a recipe for more trouble. I think skepticism is very warranted here."

States began looking at alternate execution procedures last year as some prisons ran into trouble obtaining chemicals for lethal injections because manufacturers won't sell them to kill people.

Some officials turned to secret compounding pharmacies to make the concoctions, which spawned new waves of legal challenges. Others adopted new formulas, but those have been problematic, too.

One drug being used by several states — the sedative midazolam — featured in a series of executions that did not go as planned, including the badly botched lethal injection of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last month to hear a challenge to lethal injections using midazolam and executions are on hold in three states as a result.

The adoption of any new execution methods is certain to unleash a torrent wave of death-row appeals. In Tennessee, inmates are challenging a new law, signed by the governor last year, that would make the electric chair the backup method.

Although many bills promoting anachronistic executions have faltered, there is public support for a range of alternatives to the needle.

An NBC News poll last year found that one in three people say that if lethal injections are no longer viable executions should be stopped altogether. Others disagreed: 20 percent backed the gas chamber, 18 percent the electric chair, 12 percent the firing squad and 8 percent hanging.

One federal appeals judge declared last year that the lethal-injection system is doomed and that the guillotine would be better.

"Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful — like something any one of us might experience in our final moments," wrote Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"But executions are, in fact, nothing like that. They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf."