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How Can a Prop Gun Kill?

In the wake of a fatal shooting on the set of the movie ‘Rust,’ a Hollywood armorer explains weapons safety protocols and how they can fall short

Security guards block the Bonanza Creek Ranch set of the movie 'Rust' in Santa Fe, N.M., on Oct. 21. A prop firearm discharged by veteran actor Alec Baldwin, who is producing and starring the movie, killed his director of photography and injured the director there on Thursday, authorities said. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)


The tragic accidental-shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the New Mexico set of the movie Rust has raised numerous questions about safety in film productions. Chief among them: How could the use of a prop weapon or fake ammunition leave a 42-year-old mother of one dead and a colleague injured?

On Thursday, Oct. 21, Rust star and producer Alec Baldwin fired a gun on the movie’s Santa Fe set during a scene rehearsal. According to reports, that single shot killed Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza, 48, who was standing next to her. “There are no words to convey my shock and sadness regarding the tragic accident that took the life of Halyna Hutchins, a wife, mother, and deeply admired colleague of ours,” Baldwin tweeted on Friday. “I’m fully cooperating with the police investigation to address how this tragedy occurred and I am in touch with her husband, offering my support to him and his family. My heart is broken for her husband, their son, and all who knew and loved Halyna.” 

The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office has not released information regarding what type of gun was being used (a real gun versus a rubber “prop” gun), whether it was loaded with real bullets, or what exactly happened when it was discharged. A film-workers union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 44, however, sent an email to members on Friday stating that “a live single round was accidentally fired on set by the principal actor, hitting both the Director of Photography, Local 600 member Halyna Hutchins, and Director Joel Souza,” according to reporting by Indiewire. An affidavit later filed by Santa Fe County sheriff’s officer Joel Cano supports this claim, stating that the film’s first assistant director, Dave Halls, unknowingly gave Baldwin a loaded gun. When handing over the weapon, the affidavit states, Halls shouted, “Cold gun!” — a term used to indicate the gun contains no live rounds and is safe to handle.

The incident has drawn comparisons to the 1993 shooting death of Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee, on the set of the movie The Crow. In that scenario, a blank cartridge accidentally dislodged the tip of a .44-caliber bullet that had gotten stuck in the gun’s barrel. But even blanks alone can prove fatal. Whether the projectiles involved are made of balled-up paper or wax, they are propelled by lit gunpowder with a force that can be lethal at close range. In 1984, the actor Jon-Erik Hexum shot himself in the head with a blank cartridge during a game of Russian roulette on a TV set; he died after several hours of surgery.

Since the Rust accident, numerous Hollywood crew members and prop specialists have come forward expressing shock at the apparent failures of established safety protocols on that set. Weapons safety in particular is supposed to be managed by a qualified armorer, sometimes called a “weapons master” on film sets, who retains certain certifications of expertise. Armorers assist in training actors to handle weapons properly; they also control the storage of weapons on set and personally ensure they are not loaded with live rounds. Reports that a handful of union-certified crew members had walked off the Rust set the day before the accident in protest of unsafe working conditions, and local workers were hastily called in to replace them, indicate that a less qualified professional could have been overseeing the movie’s weapons supply at the time of Hutchins’ killing. 

Victoria Wagner, an armorer who worked on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and served as a firearms assistant on two seasons of Deadliest Warrior, a Spike TV show that staged imaginary battles between historic fighters, says it is difficult to imagine this sort of tragedy happening if the proper protocols are being followed. “A prop gun is usually made out of pot metal and not meant to fire,” says Wagner. “The stories we’re getting out of Hollywood right now about [Baldwin] firing live ammo out of a prop gun [aren’t] making a lot of sense.” She spoke with Rolling Stone about how she works to keep movie sets safe, and what could have gone wrong on the set of Rust.

Where do the standards for weapons safety on a movie set typically come from?
Strictly from the armorer, if there is one. In many cases, there are several different armorers, depending on what’s involved in the movie. For example, on Batman v Superman, there was one that operated the handheld weapons, and they were different than us. We handled the 105 howitzers. There will be always a master [armorer], and they have the ultimate say on who goes where.

But I will tell you, everybody says, “How do you become an armorer in Hollywood?” The famous words are, “I work for free.” There’s always somebody willing to take your job [for less pay] that will allow the corners to be cut. And some production companies want that; some of them don’t. That becomes the question here: Were the corners cut?

On sets that you’ve worked on, how does it work when an actor is going to handle and fire a firearm in a scene? What sort of training leads up to that moment, and what sort of supervision happens in the actual shooting of the scene?
Ideally, if you have somebody who has never handled a firearm before, you would want to go through training a week before and have at least two to three sessions so that they understand what they’re dealing with. When we did Deadliest Warrior, we had two weeks training before each filming of a re-enactment. And some of the actors said they were familiar with firearms, but once you got to the range with them, they weren’t.

Is there any scenario in which an actor on a set would be handling a loaded weapon that you know of?
No, not that I can think of. For example, when we want to do a brain shot — when you want to show somebody’s brains hitting the walls after they’ve been shot — we would use an airsoft [a replica gun that fires plastic pellets] as a non-lethal way to mimic the shot, to fire at the wall behind them and give the illusion that the bullet went through their head. But never would there be live ammo unless, [as we sometimes did on] Deadliest Warrior, we’re actually testing the gun [as part of the show]. But even then, we would shoot the shot. We would have the actor [on camera], but in reality, the armorer was firing all the shots. So why would Alec Baldwin be holding a gun capable of live fire with live ammo?

Are there rules about how to actually fire the gun?
The actors are never to aim the gun directly at another person, ever. Not even in the shot. They are supposed to cheat the shot and move it off the target. Never be on target. Even if you’ve got a blank-fire gun only — if something happens and a piece of the gun breaks off inside and it ejects that piece of shrapnel, it’s not a bullet, but that’s still a projectile. That’s why you never, ever aim a gun at another person.

So who is responsible in an instance like what happened on Thursday?
An armorer needs to check every weapon to make sure that there is no live ammo. It’s a standard procedure. At the beginning of the day, you should set out your ammo that you anticipate using for the day. Now, they always say that they only want, you know, X amount of ammo that they’ve budgeted for, but they always end up going twice or three times over that. And as an experienced armorer you anticipate that. If they order 10 [blanks], you bring 30. And you check to make sure that all of them are clean, in good condition, and there’s no live ammo mixed in there. And then when you load the gun, you make sure that you’re loading clean blanks and no live ammo. Why would you ever have live ammo on the set when you could use airsoft? And why would you ever hand an actor live ammo, and why did he ever point it at a person?

What steps do you think could be taken to prevent something like this from happening again?
I would want to see some certification [for actors]. Ideally the people would have taken a pistol course and a rifle course, or, you know, some training ahead of time.

From Rolling Stone US