The shooting of two crew members on Thursday [October 21, 2021] by actor Alec Baldwin on the set of his latest film “Rust” and is reminiscent of the 1993 on-set death of Brandon Lee, son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee. It has also brought Hollywood’s tumultuous relationship with firearms to the forefront of the American culture wars once again. The two most relevant topics raised are gun safety and education and the often hypocritical political stance regarding firearms by actors and others in the cinematic entertainment industry.
The following article will examine the safety issues identified on the set of “Rust” in the preliminary findings of the shooting, firearms safety on movie sets in general, and how the prevailing anti-gun sentiment in Hollywood may have contributed to the killing of one crew member and wounding of another. Because most of the individuals involved are private citizens, the article will identify them by title or position only, regardless of being named publically in the media related to this story. The exceptions to this are the admitted shooter, actor/producer Alec Baldwin, and the victims, cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and director Joel Souza.
Props, Principles, and Prevention
The article should first explain some key definitions and concepts to put this discussion into the proper context, especially regarding safety and culpability/responsibility even when using prop guns and blank rounds. But, first, what is a “prop” gun? A prop gun is a replica firearm used in cinema (or on stage) to simulate a real weapon. These can be real weapons that have been fabricated or customized to look different such as for Science Fiction films like Han Solo’s blaster in “Star Wars” or the “M41A Pulse Rifle” from “Aliens.” For stunts and action scenes, studios will often use very accurately molded plastic or rubberized replicas.
Prop guns also include real firearms modified with minor adjustments so that they only fire blank rounds – rounds without a projectile – but are otherwise unable to fire lethal munitions. However, these blank rounds can still injure an actor, stunt person, or crew member because they still contain the explosive charge necessary to produce a muzzle-flash and recoil to cycle the weapon’s bolt. Therefore, those using blank rounds should still treat them as “live” munitions.
Finally, there are real firearms capable of firing a projectile. Directors and cinematographers will often utilize these weapons for close-up film shots or when modifications are not feasible. One usually sees this with period-piece firearms or when one cannot otherwise obtain a particular cinematic effect. In these cases, blank rounds using wadding, or inert, “dummy” rounds devoid of powder, and ofter primers too (explained later in the article as to why), but the former still requires a great deal of care because they can injure those involved with the production.
The second principle is the difference between a “cold” gun and a “hot’ or “live” weapon. Cold refers to an unloaded weapon; no magazine in the firearm, no rounds in the cylinder (if a revolver) or tube (for some rifles), and no round in the breech or chamber. Conversely, a hot or live weapon will either have a round in the chamber and is ready to fire or a clear breech/chamber, but tube/magazine/cylinder loaded with ammunition. Again, it is the responsibility of whoever is holding a firearm to know its condition and firing status.
Even if someone tells another person that they are handing over the weapon to is cold or observed that person clearing and making safe that weapon, the recipient should still verify that status for themselves. It does not matter if this is the recipient’s “job” to check the weapon; firearms safety is everyone’s responsibility. A lowly private can call a ceasefire on a range for a four-star general’s unsafe act. A rookie police officer can tell a chief they are not using a firearm safely. Finally, an actor can verify the status of a gun the assistant director handed them just before filming or rehearsal.
The following principle is that those who regularly handle or use firearms for professional or recreational activities know and understand four fundamentals of firearms safety. First, treat all firearms as if they are loaded. Second, keep your finger off the trigger (and out of the trigger well) until you have identified your target and are ready to fire. Third, do not point your weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot. Finally, know your target and what is in the foreground, next to, and behind your target. If a shooter abides by these four basic principles, they can significantly reduce their likelihood of a negligent discharge and possibly killing or injuring someone unintentionally.
Lastly is the difference between an accidental discharge and a negligent discharge. An accident generally results from a mechanical failure in the weapon or something that causes the hammer to fall, depress the trigger, or the firing pin to strike the round. Common examples of these are worn leather holsters depressing the trigger when reholstering, thick brush manipulating safeties and triggers, a weapon hitting the ground forcefully, or a spring or pin breaking causing the gun to fire without intent. A negligent discharge is when a shooter is ignorant of or disregards the four fundamentals of firearms’ safety mentioned above, resulting in the discharge of the weapon unintentionally.
Everyone’s Taking the Chance, Ah Yes, the Safety Dance
After the gun-related death of Brandon Lee while filming “The Crow” in 1993, the film industry took significant steps to improve firearm safety on movie sets, and there have been less than fifty documented injuries from prop guns since that incident. However, two separate safety failures caused Lee’s death. First, the armorer loaded dummy rounds – with primers intact – into a genuine revolver for aesthetics, namely, seeing the rounds in the cylinder during a close-up shot. Although there was no gunpowder in the round, the explosion from the primer was enough to discharge the bullet from the casing, but it became lodged in the barrel and not adequately checked for obstructions. Second, a blank round containing gunpowder but no bullet was fired through that same revolver during a follow-up scene while pointed at Lee. The force of the blank round propelled the lodged bullet into Lee’s chest, killing him. Understandably, this tragic event was the cause for significant changes to how firearms were used and maintained on film sets.
The shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was the first prop gun fatality on-set since Lee’s death. Unfortunately, as more details emerge and witnesses come forward, it would appear that Hutchins’ tragic death was due to pervasive negligence and was completely avoidable. By all accounts, the production of “Rust” suffered endemic safety issues that got so bad that numerous crew members resigned earlier the day of the shooting. Safety concerns were not exclusively firearms-related and included claustrophobic conditions on-set, fire hazards, and the absence of required safety meetings. However, the lack of gun safety was the most egregious and almost predictably resulted in injury and death, and the article will break down those issues below.
When handling firearms on-set, production crews implement numerous safety measures to prevent accidental injuries or death. The first is limiting access to prop guns. Typically, a crew member, known as the armorer (sometimes the prop master depending on the production’s budget), will secure the prop guns and distribute only those needed for filming that day and only when that particular scene is filmed or rehearsed. Similarly, the armorer only distributes blank and dummy rounds if and when required for a scene, and the assistant director will provide additional safety briefings for the crew. Live rounds – those with a bullet, powder, and primer – are never used and strictly prohibited on film sets.
Unfortunately, the armorer for “Rust” was relatively inexperienced. This film was only her second as head armorer; the first, “The Old Way,” also involved a prop gun safety incident. In that incident, a firearm was loaded unsafely with a high potential for barrel obstruction then handed to an eleven-year-old actress. The weapon in the “Rust” shooting reportedly had two previous misfires or accidental discharges and should have been removed from the inventory. Numerous sources also report that some crew members had used the same pistol involved in the shooting for recreational target practice with live rounds earlier in the day or the evening before. A more experienced armorer and crew would have understood the inherent risks of their actions and the unpredictable firearm presented to others on the set and are partially culpable in Hutchins’ death.
The second is redundant safety checks. Based on the outlined definitions above, no less than two people will verify whether a prop gun is hot or cold before a performer uses it during filming. Again, the assistant director and armorer are generally responsible for this task, but under ideal conditions, the process includes the stunt coordinator and actor themselves all verifying the weapon’s status. This process falls under the fundamental of treating all firearms as if they are loaded; undoubtedly, the old Russian proverb “trust but verify” as well. For example, there is a viral video of Will Smith correcting a stuntman during the production of “Bad Boys 3” who was handling a prop gun in an unsafe manner (pointing it at no less than two people’s heads). Smith quickly deflected the weapon away from the other crew members and verified it was clear of ammunition while pointing it in a safe direction before handing it back to the stuntman.
Unfortunately, this level of firearms safety and awareness was absent on the “Rust” production site. The director or cinematographer often asks an actor or actress to point a prop gun in the camera’s direction to create specific imagery. In these instances, the performer is off-set from the camera by five to ten degrees, oriented away from crew members, and other additional safety precautions, such as erecting safety glass, are undertaken. Alec Baldwin, believing it was an unloaded pistol (the assistant director told him it was a cold gun), practiced drawing and firing while rehearsing for the next scene when it fired, a live round striking Hutchins and Souza.
The live round was likely a remnant from the earlier target shooting by the crew members but should have never gone unnoticed by at least two to three people responsible for ensuring that weapon was safe. The investigation by the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Department will hopefully definitively identify how and why a live cartridge ended up on the set of “Rust,” and all parties ultimately civilly and potentially criminally responsible for the shooting.
Hypocrisy, Hyperbole, and Hilarity
Another component warrants discussion because of its underlying impact on the events leading up to and following this shooting. That is the vehement anti-gun culture throughout Hollywood. Despite many performers, directors, and producers making millions of dollars from action movies depicting firefights and gun violence, many are outspoken critics of the Second Amendment and the types of weapons they believe citizens should possess. For example, Liam Neeson and Matt Damon are some of the most vocal advocates for draconian gun control measures in the U.S. and globally, and Alec Baldwin is right there alongside them.
Baldwin regularly targets the National Rifle Association (NRA) for condemnation any time there is a newsworthy shooting and has been an increasingly more vitriolic critic of police officer-involved shootings, regardless of the circumstances. Yet, ironically, the NRA provides hunter and firearm safety courses to members and nonmembers that could have helped avoid the tragic shooting on the set of “Rust.” Public criticism of Baldwin, particularly with memes (edited images with a comedic statement related to a current event or pop culture), has been brutal and unrelenting and often includes his words or Tweets.
The memes and social media commentary detract from the tragic loss of life and the psychological toll it will take on Alec Baldwin, but arguably is a necessary evil to mitigate some of the hyperbole and hypocrisy from the film industry regarding firearms. It would also be irresponsible for the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s office to not file criminal charges for gross indifference or negligence resulting in death, the legal standard for negligent homicide or involuntary manslaughter charges. The family of Hutchins could bring civil lawsuits against Alec Baldwin as the shooter and producer of the film and against the other crew members who contributed to the fateful event.
In closing, this incident is but one of three firearm-related fatalities over the last forty years. Thus, it does not require any more widespread reforms than what has been in place since the death of Brandon Lee almost thirty years ago. Still, many people within the film industry are now opting to transition to CGI (computer-generated images) to simulate gunfire.
Still, they will likely find it will become prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, resulting in a far lower quality product. Suppose Alec Baldwin and the crew of “Rust” had abided by the four fundamentals of firearm safety and maintained the film industry’s safety standards. In that case, they could have avoided their respective roles in this tragedy. Gun safety is everyone’s responsibility when in the presence of firearms, even when it is not “their job,” and those failures led to the injury and death of two people.
Ben Varlese is a former U.S. Army Mountain Infantry Platoon Sergeant and served in domestic and overseas roles from 2001-2018, including, from 2003-2005, as a sniper section leader. Besides his military service, Ben worked on the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq’s protective security detail in various roles, and since 2018, he has also provided security consulting services for public and private sectors, including tactical training, physical and information security, executive protection, protective intelligence, risk management, insider threat mitigation, and anti-terrorism. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, a graduate certificate in Cyber Security from Colorado State University and is currently in his second year of AMU’s Doctorate of Global Security program.