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Old 06-17-2010, 11:25 AM
YogSothoth YogSothoth is offline
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Firing squads: Why the blank?

This article reminded me of something I felt was weird for a long time. In the article, it states that:

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As in traditional military firing squads, one of those shooters' guns will be loaded with blanks, to keep each one uncertain about whether he fired a fatal shot.
Why's that such a big issue? It seems that since these men had been chosen or volunteered for the job, killing someone isn't that big of an issue. After all, difficulty aside, they don't have multiple levers for electric chairs so that the executioner doesn't know if he's the one pulling the real lever, or placebos in lethal injections. Why's a firing squad so special?

Plus, couldn't they rig a setup where one guy pulls a lever and 4 guns go off at the same time? I'm sure the executioner won't have that problem
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Old 06-17-2010, 11:32 AM
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Originally Posted by YogSosoth View Post
It seems that since these men had been chosen or volunteered for the job, killing someone isn't that big of an issue.
No, it actually is a big issue for the vast majority. The one blank allows each shooter some level of deniability.

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Originally Posted by YogSosoth View Post
After all, difficulty aside, they don't have multiple levers for electric chairs so that the executioner doesn't know if he's the one pulling the real lever, or placebos in lethal injections. Why's a firing squad so special?
Actually, I believe these execution methods also have deniability measures built in. Have to look it up to be sure.
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Old 06-17-2010, 11:35 AM
SoulFrost SoulFrost is offline
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Actually, I think that they do use placebos in lethal injections:

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Two staff members each have a station in which they key the machine on and depress two stations buttons to be ready in case of mechanical failure. Each person presses one station button on the console which travels to a computer which starts all three injections electronically. The computer then deletes who actually started the syringes so that the executioners do not have as much of a feeling of guilt. The delivery module has eight syringes. The end syringes containing saline, syringes 2, 4, 6 containing the lethal drugs for the main line and syringes 1, 3, 5 containing the injections for the back-up line.

source
In any event, the "blank" gives people a moral out--"My gun may be the one with blanks. In fact, I'm sure it is." Bang.
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Old 06-17-2010, 11:36 AM
Marley23 Marley23 is offline
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It's tradition. The reason for the tradition is right there in the excerpt you quoted. Is it logical? Maybe not. Since I've never been part of a firing squad I don't know if it's a psychologically useful coping mechanism. I have a vague memory of hearing about an instance where all the men on the firing squad had live ammo (someone forgot to put a blank in one of the rifles) and the shooters were upset, but I'm not sure I can find any details based on such a vague recollection.

I think Utah is the only U.S. state that still does executions by firing squad, and they may allow hangings as well. And even they are doing away with the firing squad - they banned in 2004, but it sounds like people who were already on death row at the time of the ban are still allowed to opt for it.
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Old 06-17-2010, 11:39 AM
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Yeah, it's primarily to allow an abdication of personal responsibility and soothe each shooter's conscience.

It also functions to de-emphasize the individual's role in the act itself, thus making the execution an act of the state/government, rather than any one person.
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Old 06-17-2010, 11:42 AM
Oakminster Oakminster is offline
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I'm not sure how effective the blank would be for that purpose, anyway. I've never been on a firing squad, but I have a feeling I'd know where my round hit. Also think I'd notice if I fired a blank. Seems like the sound/feel would be off slightly....
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Old 06-17-2010, 11:46 AM
SoulFrost SoulFrost is offline
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I don't think it's so much to help the shooters deny that they actively participated in an execution as much as it gets them to shoot in the first place.
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Old 06-17-2010, 11:51 AM
Skald the Rhymer Skald the Rhymer is offline
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I'm not sure how effective the blank would be for that purpose, anyway. I've never been on a firing squad, but I have a feeling I'd know where my round hit. Also think I'd notice if I fired a blank. Seems like the sound/feel would be off slightly....
Oak, I've never fired a blank from a rifle, but I have from a handgun. The feel is slightly off. But, as was pointed out above, the point is to let people engage in denial, so it needn't have a strong factual basis.
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Old 06-17-2010, 11:59 AM
BrotherCadfael BrotherCadfael is offline
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This may be a holdover from when members of the firing squad were pressed into service. Nowadays, they are volunteers.
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Old 06-17-2010, 12:03 PM
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Electric chairs often had multiple switches as well. Wikipedia has this to say about West Virginia's "Old Sparky":

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Its control apparatus was designed in such a way that three push-button switches were to be simultaneously pressed by three members of the execution team; only one of these switches actually completed the circuit, allowing each member of the execution team to reassure himself that perhaps he had not been the one who had actually initiated the death of the condemned.
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Old 06-17-2010, 12:06 PM
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It's called plausible deniability, it the whole theory behind the Japanese peer-to-pper filing sharing program "Perfect Dark."

As for blanks...Well remember what Jon-Erik Hexum said: "Look there are blanks in the gun"
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Old 06-17-2010, 12:06 PM
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I'm not sure how effective the blank would be for that purpose, anyway. I've never been on a firing squad, but I have a feeling I'd know where my round hit. Also think I'd notice if I fired a blank. Seems like the sound/feel would be off slightly....
From the CNN article on this:

"Five anonymous marksmen will use matching .30-caliber rifles, standing behind a wall cut with five gunports. One of the rifles will be an "ineffective" round, similar to a blank, which delivers the same recoil as a live round. That ensures none of the riflemen will know who delivered the fatal shot."

http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/06/16/...ex.html?hpt=T2
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Old 06-17-2010, 12:11 PM
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This may be a holdover from when members of the firing squad were pressed into service. Nowadays, they are volunteers.
I think you've nailed it. Traditionally, firing squads weren't professional executioners - they were ordinary soldiers who pulled really crappy duty. Killing someone from your own side, standing there tied to a post, requires massive amounts of self-justification.
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Old 06-17-2010, 12:16 PM
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I think you've nailed it. Traditionally, firing squads weren't professional executioners - they were ordinary soldiers who pulled really crappy duty. Killing someone from your own side, standing there tied to a post, requires massive amounts of self-justification.
Yeah, soldiers and lawmen generally resist the idea of shooting an unarmed man who is restrained and blindfolded.

Even volunteering to pull the trigger doesn't mean that you'll be able to do it when the time comes.
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Old 06-17-2010, 12:56 PM
Paul in Qatar Paul in Qatar is offline
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I think you've nailed it. Traditionally, firing squads weren't professional executioners - they were ordinary soldiers who pulled really crappy duty. Killing someone from your own side, standing there tied to a post, requires massive amounts of self-justification.
In the US military, the wartime method of execution was firing squad. The squad would be drawn from your own regiment. The purpose was to allow the unit to clean up its own mistakes as it were.

Nowadays, the military has gone to lethal injection. Another tradition gone.

Really, firing squad sounds just about perfect.
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Old 06-17-2010, 11:05 PM
Johnny L.A. Johnny L.A. is offline
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Originally Posted by Valgard View Post
From the CNN article on this:

"Five anonymous marksmen will use matching .30-caliber rifles, standing behind a wall cut with five gunports. One of the rifles will be an "ineffective" round, similar to a blank, which delivers the same recoil as a live round. That ensures none of the riflemen will know who delivered the fatal shot."

http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/06/16/...ex.html?hpt=T2
I only heard today about the scheduled execution of Ronnie Lee Gardener in Utah in about four hours from now. NPR mentioned a .30-30 rifle. Now, there are lots of rifles chambered for .30-30, but I think the two most common are the late Winchester Model 94 and the Marlin 336. I have a Model 94, and it kicks like a mule.

I know there are -- or were -- wooden 'blanks' where the wooden projectile will disintegrate right out of the muzzle. I wonder if these wooden bullets would be visible to the shooter as they fly apart? The other thing I wonder about is mass. Wouldn't an 'ineffective round' have a projectile that is much lighter than a jacketed lead bullet? And if so, how does it mimic recoil with which the shooter is probably very familiar?
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Old 06-18-2010, 05:41 AM
yastobaal yastobaal is offline
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Originally Posted by BBC News
None of the firing squad will ever know for sure if he fired a lethal shot. One gun was loaded with a dummy - probably wax - bullet, which is said to deliver the same recoil as a live round.
From here.

Interesting that the news sites aren't exactly sure about what the fake bullet is made out of.
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Old 06-18-2010, 06:41 AM
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I learned about this on a news story they did on the execution last night. I had always thought it was the other way around - that all the guns contained blanks, and that there was only one gun containing a live round. Having only one blank would increase the odds that you yourself fired a fatal shot.
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Old 06-18-2010, 06:56 AM
GSV Consolation of Dreams GSV Consolation of Dreams is offline
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Maybe it's insurance against misses and malfunctions. You to get it over with quickly and cleanly, with as little scope for embarrassing/"inhumane" do overs.
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Old 06-18-2010, 07:00 AM
ivan astikov ivan astikov is offline
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Albert Pierpoint will be turning in his grave at all this talk of deniability and enabling executioners to have a good night's sleep.
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Old 06-18-2010, 07:15 AM
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Actually, I think that they do use placebos in lethal injections:



In any event, the "blank" gives people a moral out--"My gun may be the one with blanks. In fact, I'm sure it is." Bang.
I have almost no experience with guns, but I remember hearing about the "blank" tradition back when Gary Gilmore was executed.

And I remember a TV reporter talking to one of the men who was on the firing squad. The reporter asked him about the blank, and the shooter said, "I fired a real bullet. I can tell the difference."

Again, not knowing much about guns, I don't know first-hand if an experienced shooter can tell the difference between a loaded gun and one loaded with blanks. But this shooter was certain he COULD tell the difference. I'm guessing MOST experienced shooters believe they can tell the difference. Which means that, IF the object is to let each shooter believe he didn't fire the fatal shot, it's NOT working.
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Old 06-18-2010, 07:43 AM
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And even they are doing away with the firing squad - they banned in 2004, but it sounds like people who were already on death row at the time of the ban are still allowed to opt for it.
And when he's not banning, he's talking about banning...

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Old 06-18-2010, 07:52 AM
Khaki Campbell Khaki Campbell is offline
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It would make more sense if every rifle except one was loaded with blanks, as one live round is enough to complete the job.
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Old 06-18-2010, 08:17 AM
PoorYorick PoorYorick is offline
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It would make more sense if every rifle except one was loaded with blanks, as one live round is enough to complete the job.
I disagree. There's no guarantee that a single shooter would fire the perfect shot (they aim for the heart, don't they?), and there are plenty of instances of people surviving a single gunshot wound, even from close distances.
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Old 06-18-2010, 08:33 AM
Simplicio Simplicio is offline
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I disagree. There's no guarantee that a single shooter would fire the perfect shot (they aim for the heart, don't they?), and there are plenty of instances of people surviving a single gunshot wound, even from close distances.
Yea, and you not only want the shot to be fatal, but you want it to be fatal fairly quickly. Having five bullets aimed at the heart from twenty feet and your likely to get a few directly in the heart/aorta and have the target bleed out pretty quickly. One bullet might leave the person flopping around on the ground for thirty minutes, raising awkward questions about whether you should try and patch him up or not.

Even with five shooters, it seems pretty crude (and presumably, a lot messier then the alternatives, I'd hate to be the Janitor). Not to mention extra work for the mortician. Not even getting into Constitutional concerns, its pretty easy to see why its being phased out.

Last edited by Simplicio; 06-18-2010 at 08:34 AM.
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Old 06-18-2010, 09:43 AM
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All the articles I've read suggest that it's actually much quicker and obviously more efficient - just messier. That's the thing, the most humane ways to kill a person or animal are often the most unsettling for bystanders. The guillotine really was a pretty damned good method - just has a bit of an image problem.
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Old 06-18-2010, 10:06 AM
PoorYorick PoorYorick is offline
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Yeah, I always thought a pile driver to the head would be the perfect execution method, but, eww.
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Old 06-18-2010, 10:19 AM
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Again, not knowing much about guns, I don't know first-hand if an experienced shooter can tell the difference between a loaded gun and one loaded with blanks. But this shooter was certain he COULD tell the difference. I'm guessing MOST experienced shooters believe they can tell the difference. Which means that, IF the object is to let each shooter believe he didn't fire the fatal shot, it's NOT working.
The way I see it, that particular shooter was OK with firing a live round. The blank is to help people who have a problem with the killing. If you have one that is bothered by it, his mind could very well deny 'fact' and happily perceive that he fired a blank. In fact, I think this makes the mechanism even better. You have people who are certain they can tell the difference, their minds can play a coping trick on them making them believe they fired a blank when they didn't. The problem comes from if they decide to compare notes, which they probably shouldn't do.
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Old 06-18-2010, 10:55 AM
Skald the Rhymer Skald the Rhymer is offline
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An experiment in the offing

My best friend and her husband are in town this weekend, and we are going to the range tomorrow to shoot, among other things. If we can get out hands on some blanks, we're going to check our ability to distinguish blanks from live rounds. The test isn't perfect, as we'll be using handguns, but I thought I'd bring it up.

I'll let y'all know the results Sunday or Monday.
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Old 06-18-2010, 11:02 AM
Zsofia Zsofia is offline
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Yeah, I always thought a pile driver to the head would be the perfect execution method, but, eww.
Football helmet covered in explosives. Practically guaranteed to be fast and painless.
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Old 06-18-2010, 11:20 AM
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I think you've nailed it. Traditionally, firing squads weren't professional executioners - they were ordinary soldiers who pulled really crappy duty. Killing someone from your own side, standing there tied to a post, requires massive amounts of self-justification.
I can imagine being one of the people selected for a firing squad. There'd be no way out of it.

"You, you, you and you. Take this man out and kill him." And woe betide the soul who says "No."

A blank would be the maximum flexibility I could hope for.
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Old 06-18-2010, 11:22 AM
Johnny L.A. Johnny L.A. is offline
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Originally Posted by Skald the Rhymer View Post
My best friend and her husband are in town this weekend, and we are going to the range tomorrow to shoot, among other things. If we can get out hands on some blanks, we're going to check our ability to distinguish blanks from live rounds. The test isn't perfect, as we'll be using handguns, but I thought I'd bring it up.

I'll let y'all know the results Sunday or Monday.
I've fired blanks in an AR-15 (5.56 mm), FN-FAL (7.62 mm), and a Beretta 92FS (9 mm). The AR-15 had a 'Hollywood-style' blank firing adaptor. The FN had an open barrel. We modified the Beretta so that it would cycle with blank ammunition. In the case of the rifles there was zero felt recoil. The Beretta had something to push against (required to cycle the action), but the recoil was barely felt. If you're using blanks at the range, Skald, I expect you will not feel any recoil.

With a dummy bullet, the mass has to be the same as a lead one, otherwise the recoil will be different. With a blank, there's nothing 'pushing back'. With a modified gun, like the Beretta, you need a hole small enough to provide the back pressure to move the slide, but large enough so that nothing 'unfortunate' happens.
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Old 06-18-2010, 11:34 AM
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Good god, the uncertainty would haunt me forever if I were ever on a firing squad. Better to just load all the guns and know for sure that you did in fact shoot the prisoner. And it's not like they would even know which bullets delivered fatal hits after all. I'd think it would be better to know for certain and have some closure, than to go on second-guessing yourself.

Last edited by gladtobeblazed; 06-18-2010 at 11:38 AM.
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Old 06-18-2010, 01:36 PM
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I hope this doesn't move this discussion too close to GD, but isn't the inclusion of a blank, and its rationale, an admission that the process by definition is inhumane?
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Old 06-18-2010, 01:59 PM
PoorYorick PoorYorick is offline
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I hope this doesn't move this discussion too close to GD, but isn't the inclusion of a blank, and its rationale, an admission that the process by definition is inhumane?
Good question, but I don't necessarily think so. As a trivial example, someone may think it's OK to humanely slaughter animals for food, but they'd rather not be the one to do it. Multiply that about a google for human execution (although, for other reasons, I personally am leaning toward wanting to abolish the death penalty).

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Old 06-18-2010, 02:32 PM
Slithy Tove Slithy Tove is offline
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Did they have a guy with a handgun standing by, just in case he needed a coup de grace? (graphic image warning)

Mata Hari got a coup de grace. Why not everyone?
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Old 06-18-2010, 04:01 PM
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I have almost no experience with guns, but I remember hearing about the "blank" tradition back when Gary Gilmore was executed.

And I remember a TV reporter talking to one of the men who was on the firing squad. The reporter asked him about the blank, and the shooter said, "I fired a real bullet. I can tell the difference."

Again, not knowing much about guns, I don't know first-hand if an experienced shooter can tell the difference between a loaded gun and one loaded with blanks. But this shooter was certain he COULD tell the difference. I'm guessing MOST experienced shooters believe they can tell the difference. Which means that, IF the object is to let each shooter believe he didn't fire the fatal shot, it's NOT working.
I am not an experienced shooter, I have only fired a a gun with real ammo maybe twice and one loaded with blanks 2 or 3 times.

But as I recall, you'd have to be really stupid or brain dead not to be able to tell the difference, a gun loaded with blanks has absolutely no recoil.
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Old 06-18-2010, 04:04 PM
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For that matter, why not just skip to the coup de grace?
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Old 06-18-2010, 04:05 PM
Superfluous Parentheses Superfluous Parentheses is offline
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I don't think it's so much to help the shooters deny that they actively participated in an execution as much as it gets them to shoot in the first place.
This sounds like the most immediate and plausible reason to me.

ETA: yeah it's irrational. I'm sure it works all the same.

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Old 06-18-2010, 04:10 PM
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The blank does provide plausible deniability if an individual shooter wants to claim it when speaking to another person, whether or not he actually knows he fired a blank or a real round.

But the presence of the blank in one rifle which is unknown to all the shooters in advance allows each shooter to believe that when he fires he may be the one drawing the blank. This may make it easier for the shooter to bring himself to the point at which he can actually aim for the target and pull that trigger on command. Right up until the shot is actually fired, he can tell himself "It isn't going to be me that kills him".

ETA- Sorry SoulFrost, I don't know how I missed your post before!

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Old 06-18-2010, 04:38 PM
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I am not an experienced shooter, I have only fired a a gun with real ammo maybe twice and one loaded with blanks 2 or 3 times.

But as I recall, you'd have to be really stupid or brain dead not to be able to tell the difference, a gun loaded with blanks has absolutely no recoil.
How about those big blanks they used to use for rifle grenades? They had quite a kick.
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Old 06-18-2010, 05:01 PM
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The guys in charge have thought about these issues with the blanks giving less recoil than normal. To solve this it seems that they are using something to reduce this discrepancy. How much by, has not been explained by the sources so far but they are thinking about it.
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Old 06-18-2010, 05:35 PM
Johnny L.A. Johnny L.A. is offline
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How about those big blanks they used to use for rifle grenades? They had quite a kick.
The kick comes from moving a rather heavy object. (Opposite/equal reaction.)
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Old 06-18-2010, 05:47 PM
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True. But even without the grenades, they carried a lot more gunppowder than regular blanks, or regular rounds. Cleaning a weapon after using them was a bitch.

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Old 06-18-2010, 06:09 PM
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I hope this doesn't move this discussion too close to GD, but isn't the inclusion of a blank, and its rationale, an admission that the process by definition is inhumane?
It's only an admission that it is inhumane to the shooters to force them to execute someone. It says nothing about whether it is inhumane to the prisoner, or to the shooters if they are only in the squad by choice.
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Old 06-18-2010, 10:40 PM
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So what would they do if the prisoner didn't die immediately? (Say, improbably, all four executioners were a bit off-target and the prisoner had super-human strength.) Do they have a back-up plan? Reload and do it again?

Surely they have a contingency plan, right?
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Old 06-18-2010, 10:47 PM
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So what would they do if the prisoner didn't die immediately? (Say, improbably, all four executioners were a bit off-target and the prisoner had super-human strength.) Do they have a back-up plan? Reload and do it again?

Surely they have a contingency plan, right?
Well, this MUST have happened occasionally in the past- hence, the famous last words of "Breaker" Morant were "Shoot straight, you bastards- don't make a mess of it."
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Old 06-19-2010, 01:25 AM
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I'm not too sure those guys were very good shots under the stress of it. Picture 13 in the AP slide show seems to show that the cluster was pretty spread out; the bullet holes seem to extend all across his upper body. Warning--a little grizzly... http://news.yahoo.com/nphotos/execut...a9ef20f6f6f3be
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Old 06-19-2010, 01:41 AM
Erdosain Erdosain is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by MemoryDump View Post
I'm not too sure those guys were very good shots under the stress of it. Picture 13 in the AP slide show seems to show that the cluster was pretty spread out; the bullet holes seem to extend all across his upper body. Warning--a little grizzly... http://news.yahoo.com/nphotos/execut...a9ef20f6f6f3be
That is more spread out than I would have imagined. However, I suppose it's possible that if the shooters were spread out, that could affect where the bullets ended up hitting the chair after passing through his chest. If the guys on the ends are at a 70 degree angle, then their shots could pass through his heart and end up far to the side on the chair.
  #50  
Old 06-19-2010, 02:48 AM
bardos bardos is offline
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Most executions I have seen on the internet from China have the victim on his knees and a round fired into the head from behind and almost point blank.
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