The Alec Baldwin shooting: everything was done wrong

The big news this week about Alec Baldwin is that he shot two people on the set of his movie, Rust. Director Joel Souza was wounded but will make a full recovery. Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was less lucky. She died, leaving her husband Matthew Hutchins and their young son. She was only 42 years old.

It now seems clear there were violations of safety protocols. Mostly, decades of gunplay in films have led to very few accidents. One of the most publicized involved Jon-Erik Hexum, who shot himself in the head on the set of his TV show Cover Up.

Hexum, like Alec Baldwin, didn’t know the first thing about gun safety, which is always to assume the gun is loaded and never to point it at anything you don’t intend to shoot. In 1984, Hexum was playing with the gun like a child, put it to his head, and jokingly pulled the trigger. It was the last thing he ever did.

In 1993, Brandon Lee, son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, was shot and killed with a prop gun on the set of his movie The Crow. Lee’s family has issued a statement that their hearts go out to the families of Halyna and Joel and that no one should ever be killed with a gun on a movie set.

Looking at the protocols for having guns on a set makes it seem that an accident of any kind should be well-nigh impossible. Tobey Bays, a prop and set artist, explains that prop masters only put the exact number of blanks into a gun that will be used in a scene. They will also yell that the gun is hot so that everyone on the set is aware there is a loaded weapon.

Rob Hunter, a theatrical firearms instructor who works for Preferred Arms in Washington DC, talked about the layers of safety protocols that are used to assure that, even if something goes wrong, the people around the gun are still protected. Hunter emphasizes that, while live ammunition should never be on a set, prop guns can still be lethal and should never be pointed at another person.

Richard Howell of Foxtrot Productions points out that, while it may look to the viewer as if a gun is being pointed at someone, camera angles are employed to ensure that no one is ever in the direct line of fire. There are multiple rehearsals, and the armorer is the one who decides when it is safe to go ahead. This clip shows how shots, even with blanks, are done to protect all involved:

These safety protocols were not followed on the movie set of Rust. The armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, had laid out the gun but had not cleared it for use. The assistant director Dave Halls took the gun to Baldwin. Apparently, both men believed the gun was unloaded, but neither of them checked the gun. Anyway, no one but the armorer should have been handling the gun at that point.

Gutierrez-Reed is the daughter of armorer Thell Reed and has stated that she trained from a young age—but there are claims that she’s inexperienced. She recently worked as head armorer on The Old Way, a movie starring Nicholas Cage. No one was hurt but some assert that she gave an 11-year-old actress a gun without checking it properly. Gutierrez-Reed herself said before filming that “[I] wasn’t sure if I was ready” for the job.

There are reports that Baldwin was cutting corners on his movie Rust. He was not only acting in the movie but he was also the producer. He chose to film in New Mexico, away from big-budget Hollywood, which may have allowed him to skirt strict (and expensive) safety standards. Several crew members walked off the set due to safety concerns about accidental weapon discharges. There were non-union employees on the set. The investigation continues.

As this story unfolds, I can’t help thinking about the millions of rounds of ammunition fired off in films, particularly westerns like The Rifleman and Gunsmoke. Of course, those shows starred Chuck Connors and James Arness, both of whom were veterans of World War II. Many of the actors in those old movies were war veterans and knew all about gun safety firsthand from actual combat experience.

I’m not suggesting that an actor should have to enlist and go through basic training with the armed forces before using a gun on a movie set. However, it does seem self-evident that if Alec Baldwin had ever taken a gun safety course, Joel Souza might not have been wounded and Halyna Hutchins might still be alive.

Someone needs to take responsibility for this dreadful accident, but perhaps, moving forward, it would be more productive to introduce regulations in the film industry requiring any actor who will be using a gun to take a safety class with the NRA before beginning filming.

Pandra Selivanov is the author of Future Slave, a story about a 21st-century black teenager sent back in time who becomes a slave in the old south.

Image: Revolver. Pixabay License.

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