Shooting through the head is more humane

September 16, 2010


A few days ago a despicable murderer named Cal Coburn Brown, who tortured a 22-year-old woman to death, was executed in Washington State, via a new technique that involves injection of a single chemical.

In June, Utah executed a murderer by firing squad. Other states and the federal government employ electrocution, hanging or multiple-chemical injection to impose capital punishment. Method of execution is a hot controversy right now in many places, and the controversy may increase if any of several current terror cases lead to the death penalty.

Method of execution is controversial because all current methods cause suffering by the condemned.

So here’s a proposal for anyone who supports capital punishment. The condemned should be shot in the head.

No means of killing a human being is faster, and thus suffering is minimized. And the death penalty is not about vengeance, right? It’s about justice. Justice should be swift. The swiftest and least painful path to death is being shot in the head.

The electric chair is a horrific way to die – the flesh burns and smokes, the condemned is gagged so that screams do not distress witnesses. Hanging usually is quick, but not always – sometimes the neck doesn’t snap and the condemned slowly suffocates. Multiple-chemical injection requires the condemned to be strapped down to prevent struggling, and may cause convulsions that last several minutes. Single-chemical injection was effective, but caused Brown to moan.

Ronnie Lee Gardner, the murderer executed by Utah in June, chose a firing squad because death by multiple shots to the heart happens faster than by chemicals — there is an argument that shooting is less inhumane than other forms of execution. It took Gardner less than two minutes to die.

Firing squads shoot at the heart because this isn’t messy — the condemned shivers, bleeds and then is still. If firing squads shot at the head, the condemned would feel nothing. Shooting through the head is the sole method of execution that involves no pain.

Shooting through the head is also the sole method of execution that causes instant death. Instant death is merciful, so that’s what capital-punishment supporters should advocate. Shoot through the head. Get it over with as fast as possible. Television the shooting, too. Might be a deterrent.

The Constitution bans “cruel” punishment. Of all methods of execution, shooting through the head appears least cruel. Gory, sure – society would prefer that the condemned expire quietly. But least cruel. So let’s shoot through the head.

In 2006 the Supreme Court said prisoners could challenge their method of execution on grounds of cruelty, then in 2008 said executions by injection could proceed. Since the Court for decades has been unable to make up its mind about any aspect of the death penalty, it’s sure to rule on this again. Let’s get shooting through the head into the mix.

If persons guilty of capital crimes were shot through the head, this would be widely denounced, even by proponents of the death penalty. But how would it differ, morally, from injecting the condemned with lethal chemicals? Morally, there would be no difference. The only difference would be the yuck factor.

Proponents of capital punishment maintain that although many innocent people have been sentenced to death, the mistakes are always caught on appeal: no innocent person has been executed, at least in the contemporary period. This chilling 2009 New Yorker investigation finds otherwise. But in many cases, including the Washington State murderer, there are no facts in dispute. The right person has been caught, granted a fair trial, and condemned.

So shoot ’em through the head.

How would shooting the condemned through the head differ morally from any other method of execution? It wouldn’t.

Which means if you think the condemned should not be shot through the head — you think capital punishment is wrong.

Killing in self-defense or in defense of others can be moral, for individuals or for nations. Once a person is a prisoner and no longer poses any threat to society, killing becomes immoral. Only God should take the life of a helpless person. Think otherwise? Advocate shooting the condemned through the head.


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There may be a better method, actually, with neither goriness nor pain – Nitrogen asphyxiation. It was written about in National Review about 15 years ago, although is not currently in use anywhere. See more at phyxiation

The NR article can by found by searching for “Killing with kindness – capital punishment by nitrogen asphyxiation”, by Stuart A. Creque.

Posted by andrewmi | Report as abusive

The last paragraph kinds throws the rest of this off… is this guy really for shooting people in the head, or is this just an attempt to equate all forms of corporal punishment with that method of execution normally associated with the Communists and the Nazis?

Personally, I support the idea of shooting people in the head in lieu of lethal injection; it should be the standard punishment for all cases of public corruption.

Posted by EarlyCuyler1 | Report as abusive

I would like to know who was interviewed after they were shot in the head to confirm that there is no pain involved?
The last point that implies only God has the right to kill is false, the restriction we humans are given is that we shall not commit murder. There is a lot of differences between killing and murder.
When we belong to a system where justness can be bought the death penalty is murder. In a system where justice is applied evenly across the board no matter the color of the skin or the wealth of the criminal a bullet to the head for convicted murders should be acceptable as should stoning. This is a mute point since we know that in our system justice for sale.

Posted by Consult | Report as abusive

if shooting is too “Messy”, how about a variant of the Spike Gun that slaughterhouses use to kill cattle. It resembles a large staple gun that Snaps out a large metal spike a specific distance.. right thru the skull into the middle of the brain. I’ve seen it used.. the cattle are dead before they hit the floor. No errant bullets, no major mess, very little blood loss or damage.. they’re just dead before they even know it.

Mounting that onto some sort of chair or table shouldn’t be to hard.

Posted by Maddog_Morgan | Report as abusive

Not that I for a moment believe you are looking for a reply to your editorial, I feel inclined to anyway. When using a firing squad the condemned is not shot in the heart ‘because this isn’t messy’, rather the condemned is shot in the heart as it’s a large target area, that’s it. Much larger than the head, especially at distance. Additionally the chest is somewhat immobile in contrast to the head. Simply put, when you shoot to kill, you shoot ‘center mass’ to ensure you hit and kill the target.

I’m not arguing that a ‘head shot’ would not terminate the condemned faster. I’m simply pointing out that if strapping the condemned into a bed for a lethal injection is ‘cruel’ one can then only imagine the field day that would be had if we immobilized the head of the condemned to ensure a clean ‘head shot’.

Posted by Ollerus | Report as abusive

A bullet to the head doesn’t always kill. Lot’s of attempted suicides just end up disfiguring themselves. Even when successful, it’s still not always instant.

A guillotine, however, is 100% effective. And less messy.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

i hope they use the organs of the dead, regardless of their path of Jesus.

Posted by Shukla | Report as abusive

@ drewbie, you may have a point… with the poverty index going up, we might have an opportunity to visit anarchy a la The French Revolution.

I’m not sure if Easterbrook is really for shooting people in the head; that last paragraph makes his point kinda murky.

Does he want to make us “realize” that the death penalty is wrong, but upholding that method most commonly associated with the Nazis and Communists as the best of all possible evils?

Posted by EarlyCuyler1 | Report as abusive

Regardless of the method used to execute a convicted crimianl, it is probably more merciful than the method the criminal used to murder their innocent victim.

Posted by moonhill | Report as abusive

Faster and cheaper, but I think a sledgehammer to the forehead would be equally quick. It has been used on cattle for centuries. Why should we pay to warehouse people society has deemed unfit to return to the street. Guilty or not we have thrown them out at least dead they aren’t wasting oxygen or committing more crimes inside of prison.

Posted by mg82 | Report as abusive

I would agree where capital punishment is going to be carried out, conditional on first getting Military and Neurological experts together to define the best possible specific procedure and have all States agree to follow that procedure. As someone else said, not all shots to the brain necessarily kill, much less instantly. Some people have even survived accidents such as having a large railroad tie shot completely through their heads and were able to live somewhat normal lives afterwards for years, even during the Civil War.

I also don’t personally subscribe to capital punishment.

Posted by Loutronics | Report as abusive

Hafta agree with the guillotine – but that’ll never go over in America, you know, because it’s French… o.O

Posted by CDN_finance | Report as abusive

You make a powerful, persuasive argument that has completely and utterly convinced me.

OK, let’s shoot them in the head, you silver-tongued devil.

Posted by rog-geo | Report as abusive

Why are we worried about how people on deathrow die. Do you thank for one minute that the people that they killed and tortured died without feeling pain. This is what is wrong with us now. If you kill someone and are sentenced to death, the least of our problems is worrying about how much pain you feel before you end up in HELL.

Posted by scott3872 | Report as abusive

Back of the head, through the brain stem just below the occipital, small caliber (or anything sharp if you don’t want to waste the round).

No bones, no interference,no mess, no doubt.

I agree with the TV part. Start dropping bodies at half time of the Super Bowl, have a guest shooter (perhaps the victims family if they were so inclined?), or use a lottery system to pick one, and these people will get the message that we don’t screw around anymore with those of you who hold themselves above the law of society.

As far as the morality, who says it’s moral to prolong the life of the person who has no compunction toward behavior we define as prudent,those who have disdain for the rights of others and defines no action as unacceptable do not merit the application of some subjective ideology such as morality applied to them. You kill, you torture, you rape,maim and destroy you forfeit your right to be judged moralistically, however those morals may be defined.

Posted by DrFrankNFurter | Report as abusive

Well, Greg, you’ve proven yourself a total failure with regard to this argument…

Your self-imposed moral superiority complex has never been more clear.

I’d support shooting CONVICTED KILLERS in the head. Hell, the only reason I wouldn’t is that part of the deterrent effect of capital punishment is the fear of it. If one is to die painlessly, the stakes are lessened, and the negative incentive is lowered. I think we should kill those condemned to die for their crimes in the most painful way we can think of. And no, not for “revenge.” We need to do it because the idea, the meer thought of being, say, boiled to death, carries with it a more significant mental image, and more intense appreciation for severity, than does a quick “one second you’re alive, the next you’re dead.”

So, for the sake of proving to you that your article was pointless, one-sided, misguided, and poorly thought out (the idea you thought this would change people’s idea of capital punishment), I’ll say yes, we should “television” the shooting in the head of convicted murderers. The child-rapists for that matter. (Unfortunately the Supremes stepped all over the rights of Louisiana on that already.) But this should only be done in lieu of the ability to kill them more painfully and more slowly.

Posted by pnishr | Report as abusive

Shoot in the head, that’s fine by me. Guillotine, that’s fine too. I’m OK with one shot in the balls, one shot in the head for rapists. Whatever does the trick. My fav is firing squad. Whatever you do, don’t spare the scumbags, kill them some way.

Posted by ezsit | Report as abusive

Suicide by gunshot to the head is what is often non-fatal.

In those societies where the coup de grâce is a shot to the head from either front, side or rear, death is instantaneous. Executions in the Soviet Union and in China often meant a shot to the back of the head so the prisoner would be spared the knowledge that death was imminent. Sounds humane enough to me.

Posted by advaitin | Report as abusive

I’m okay with this method. Some say the death penalty does not deter crime. Some times stretching the idea to the limits can help put it in perspective. So for the sake of argument, suppose we applied the death penalty for every crime (in theory only). Given that the majority of crime is committed by repeat offenders, clearly crime would at least be cut in half, even if the severe punishment did not deter anyone. So clearly the death penalty does deter crime since obviously those that receive it do not commit any more.

Posted by Patriot26 | Report as abusive

I would argue the least painful, most humane way to execute would be carbon monoxide poisoning.

Posted by Kai84 | Report as abusive

I live in Greece, there’s no death penalty here. But I’m aware of the kind of debate that goes on in the States about the death penalty. I think that you have a good point here, although it seems that your article is kind of provocative. I’m definitely against the penalty itself,but I think that,since a country decides that it should use it, is also should make it as “smooth” as possible for the condemned. And it’s true, the fastest,easiest and less painful way to die is a bullet in the head-and if you think that there is a possibility that a controlled shot in the head could fail, use a larger caliber gun. In USSR (’30s) they used to kill people in concentration camps shooting them in the back of the head…amazingly,they all died instantaneously! But no, in the US you need to make a show even out of somebody’s death, that’s why the chair or injections appeared, they are interesting! And the method you are proposing here, is…eh, unpleasant to watch, so, chances of your propositions to be implemented in real life are seriously diminished!

Posted by Leo7777 | Report as abusive

Great Idea! Shoot ’em in the head, not once but twice. Sell the shooting rights to help defray the costs of trial and incarceration. Perfect!

Posted by PapaDisco | Report as abusive

Another day, another far-right voice on the Reuters home page. Lovely descent into self-centered ideology, Reuters.

Different methods of state-sanctioned executions have different failure modes and even rates – with the few major types being relatively well-known in the USA, though that does not include a “gunshot to the head”.

Where to the head? From how far? Do we know that it would certainly be less than torturous to the convicted individual? How repeatable and reliable would this process be in practice?

Well, none of these practical notions matter, because ALL forms of state-sanctioned executions are apparently usurping the author’s view of his “God’s” role in determining who should die and when, if the author classifies them as “helpless.” See, otherwise, it’s OK to kill people with a sense of Godly justice at your back – the implication being that this author’s “God” resembles right-wing idealists in terms of when it’s OK to kill or not.

As usual, the right speaks entirely for their own interests and obfuscates anything in their way to attempt supporting their desired points. Ends justify the means, in almost any situation.

Naturally, we are all expected to nod our heads when this notion of the author’s “God” is so confidently exposed, in terms of intent and relationship to common, cultural ideals.

Maybe this assumptive, semi-circular and incomplete reasoning would be best for a Brookings Institute position paper.

Posted by wader | Report as abusive

Time for a national debate on the death penalty. It is unjustifiable, as argued by the author. The purpose of law enforcement and criminal justice should be to minimize harm to society, not to seek vengeance on the wrongdoers. Executing even the most despicable criminals (who are already in prison) does nothing to further minimize harm and contains the possibility of executing an innocent person. It’s a barbaric practice.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

China not long ago admitted to using the organs of its executed capital criminals for transplants. Of course that was when they used the gunshot to the brainstem as their method of execution since there were no lethal chemicals in the body. I also wondered where they got so many physically perfect bodies for that display a few years ago of human anatomy where they somehow plasticized the body, then sort of peeled it away layer by layer. As to guillotine not being messy, are you nuts? All that blood? And the head is still conscious and responsive for about a minute afterward.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

I have to say that my opinions are divided on this subject. I do believe that justice must be served for crimes of the most heinous nature to maintain order of justice. Many will argue that it is barbarous to execute a criminal even if they are remorseless. To a certain point I would have to agree, however, this opinion is subject to change. If I were to lose a family member in a extremely cruel way (i.e. buried alive, tortured, etc) I would have difficulty accepting that the criminal responsible is going to be eating, sleeping, and living(key point) on the taxes paid by those who are not responsible and the very fact he or she is alive. I would have to agree that it is a barbaric act to have to execute anyone however, we are far from a non-barbaric society as our present society is still violent as ever. Today’s state prisons are overcrowded with some overcapacity by 300% or more and it is costing millions to maintain the system. In addition, many lower offense criminals are being released earlier than their sentence because there is just not enough room. Yes it is a slippery slope in the fact that once execution becomes an option for a solution to excessively violent crimes in conjunction with other problems such as overcrowding it may spiral out of control. However, in this mess it just may be that much of the solution lies not in government handing out convictions but rather proactive members in a community. Not to delve into the whole subject of ethics and religion, the source motivation for such actions of violence is what should be targeted. Either it be the thirst for respect, money, or power the core motivating factor in our lives seem to play into what we decide when that crucial moment of truth comes. Will finding more humane or efficient method of capital punishment solve the issue of crime or the need for justice? I highly doubt the possibility of a more civil community coming out of a society which decides shooting a person’s head a humane choice. However, this is the reality currently human society is facing and the fact that people are trying very hard to salvage some sense of human decency even in the ugly subject of execution is, although saddening, still a positive note.

Posted by JohnJLee | Report as abusive

Point made. A Modest Proposal. I agree. Let’s just abolish the death penalty.

Posted by TownDrunk | Report as abusive

I said a guillotine was less messy than a shot to the head. One bucket under the device catches the head and the blood. Also, it’s a myth that a decapitated head remains conscious. It’s responsive the way a decapitated chicken is: misfiring neurons do to shock.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

If this is an honest argument about “painless,” a painless death is easy: Put the condemned in a room with an atmosphere that contains only nitrogen, or carbon monoxide, or basically any odorless, tasteless gas other than oxygen. The individual will feel light-headed, sleepy, etc. and will eventually pass out and ultimately die. Of course, he will know that he won’t wake up, but he won’t feel any physical pain–the nervous system doesn’t react to the lack of oxygen per se. It will take a long time before the person is brain dead, but who’s in a hurry?

Posted by AlanVanneman | Report as abusive

I am opposed to capital punishment.

However, if you are going to execute someone, what’s wrong with shooting them in the back of the head? I don’t get the argument.

Posted by markw68 | Report as abusive

Guillotine sounds better as well. We can just re-name/introduce it as Freedom Knife.

Posted by Pillai | Report as abusive

[…] Easterbrook has an interesting article about the death penalty and efforts to make it more humane. He seems to be dead-set, as it were, […]

Posted by Why Not Just Shoot Them in the Head? « Blogging with Badger | Report as abusive

[…] Gregg Easterbrook, who is against the death penalty: […]

Posted by It Beats Death By Electrocution – 25 Popular Blogs – Popular | Report as abusive

Author says: ” Once a person is a prisoner and no longer poses any threat to society, killing becomes immoral.” Au contraire: Imprisoning someone does not nullify their threat to society as prisoners never cease to be a threat to each other. Furthermore, if there are persons who have been deemed unfit to enter society *ever* again, that status equates with the death penalty. Why are they let remain alive at all? Have not such persons escaped prison and killed while on the run?

Furthermore, to mix such persons in incarcerated populations alongside others who have a scheduled release date (however far in the future) endangers the future potential of the would-be free man as a member of society.

As a side note, it is noteworthy that to imprison *anyone* at any time (with the limited exception of trial or periods preceding executions) is a violation of *anyone’s* rights since the government will prosecute a charge of “unlawful imprisonment” to any citizen who holds another against his will. Any government that cannot obey it’s own laws will, eventually, unravel.

Posted by CrazedLeper | Report as abusive

Oddly enough, I am against the death penalty as well, and I have always thought the same thing: If we have to kill people, shouldn’t it be quick in order to not be “cruel?” I don’t like the idea of killing any more than anyone else, believe me, but if I had the choice of how to die, that would be it. And our CJ system is so flawed that we are almost guaranteed to execute innocents now and then. (Think about it.) I mean, laws are carried out by people. People are not reliable to be always correct or fair or ethical. But we put decisions about whether to execute someone in their hands. The entire practice is unfair, when examined on a larger scale. There are fifty different sets of rules governing executions in this country (not to mention many, many variations worldwide). When we’re talking whether to end someone’s life, shouldn’t we all follow the same rules?

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