Alec Baldwin shooting incident: What happened and what are the rules about using prop guns on set?

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·9-min read
Alec Baldwin shooting incident: What happened and what are the rules about using prop guns on set?
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The film industry is in a state of shock after cinematographer Halyna Hutchins died on set after being shot by a prop gun held by Alec Baldwin.

Production began earlier this month (6 October) at Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico for the Western film Rust, which stars Baldwin as an outlaw who goes on the run with his 13-year-old grandson after the boy is sentenced to death for an unintentional murder.

Travis Fimmel, Marty Lindsey, Brady Noon, Frances Fisher and Jensen Ackles were cast in the film alongside Baldwin, with production originally scheduled to continue until the end of November.

Alec Baldwin shooting – update: Actor fatally shoots cinematographer and injures director with prop gun

But tragedy struck on 21 October after a gun used as a prop was “discharged” by Baldwin, hitting two people.

The first was cinematographer Hutchins, 42, who was born in Ukraine and worked as an investigative journalist on documentaries before relocating to Los Angeles. She was named a “rising star” by American Cinematographer magazine in 2019.

Hutchins was transported to the University of New Mexico Hospital by helicopter following the accident, where she was pronounced dead by a team of medical professionals.

Ms Hutchins had posted a photograph from the set of Rust on Instagram the day before the shooting. She also shared a video of herself horse-riding on her day off on the same day.

Rust’s writer-director Joel Souza was also injured in the accident and taken to Christus St Vincent’s regional medical centre by ambulance. However, he has reportedly now been released.

The San Francisco-based director – whose previous work includes the 2019 film Crown Vic – is yet to comment publicly.

Santa Fe County deputies were called to the set just after 2pm on 21 October, with local news outlets reporting that Baldwin was seen visibly distraught and “in tears” while speaking on the phone in the car park of the sheriff’s office.

The actor came in “voluntarily”, the sheriff’s office has said, adding that the investigation remains “open and active”, while witnesses continue to be interviewed by detectives.

On Wednesday, 27 October, Sheriff Adan Mendoza held the first press conference on the case and said his office has not ruled out the possibility of multiple charges in the shooting - including for the actor himself.

“The investigation will continue, and if the sheriff’s office determines during our investigation a crime has occurred and probable cause exists, an arrest or arrests will be made and charges will be filed,” he said.

Asked about the possibility that Baldwin will face charges, Mr Mendoza said: “No one has been ruled out” and noted: “He was the person who fired the weapon.”

The sheriff said about 500 rounds of ammunition have been collected from the set, including the projectile which passed through Ms Hutchins before striking Mr Souza in the shoulder.

“I won’t comment further on how they got there,” Mr Mendoza said of the ammunition. “This investigation is active, so I won’t comment on how they got there, but we suspect that they are there. That will be determined when testing is done by the crime lab in reference to whether or not they are officially live rounds or not.”

The set of the film (KOAT 7 News)
The set of the film (KOAT 7 News)

Production on Rust was shut down, with production company Rust Movies Productions LLC leading tributes to Ms Hutchins.

“The entire cast and crew has been absolutely devastated by today’s tragedy, and we send our deepest condolences to Halyna’s family and loved ones,” a spokesperson said.

The company said it would be “providing counselling services to everyone connected to the film as we work to process this awful event”.

The international cinematographers’ guild, Local 600, said: “We received the devastating news this evening, that one of our members, Halyna Hutchins, the director of photography on a production called Rust in New Mexico, died from injuries sustained on the set.

“This is a terrible loss, and we mourn the passing of a member of our guild’s family.”

Film fans and actors paid tribute to Ms Hutchins on social media, with one writing: “I just wanted to share some stills of Halyna Hutchins’ work and take a moment to appreciate how ridiculously difficult it is to become a DoP [director of photography] in the film industry, especially as a woman. We’ve lost an incredible artist today.”

Screenwriter C Robert Cargill – who has worked on films including Sinister and The Black Phone – called Ms Hutchins’s death a “tragic loss”.

Suicide Squad director James Gunn added: “My greatest fear is that someone will be fatally hurt on one of my sets. I pray this will never happen. My heart goes out to all of those affected by the tragedy today on Rust, especially Halyna Hutchins & her family.”

The incident has triggered widespread debate on the use of firearms on film sets, and whether they should be permanently replaced with rubber and airsoft guns instead.

The use of guns on set is strictly controlled, with a prop master or a licensed armourer responsible for handling all weapons, including loading blanks. Productions are also often required to install shields, made from materials such as perspex, to protect cast and crew.

Jensen Eckles, who stars alongside Baldwin in Rust, recently talked about the firearms training he’d had for the film, saying last month: “I’ve got a 6am call tomorrow to have a big shoot-out. They had me pick my gun… The armourer was like, ‘Do you have gun experience?’ I was like, ‘A little.’

“She was like, ‘This is how you load it, check it’s safe. Do you want it hip drawn or cross drawn? I’ll just put some blanks in there and just fire a couple of rounds towards the hill…

“I walk out and she’s like, ‘Just make sure you pull the hammer all the way back and aim at your target.’ I was like, ‘Alright, I got it.’”

The location of the accidental shooting (The Independent)
The location of the accidental shooting (The Independent)

According to guidelines published by the US actors’ union Sag-Aftra, the prop master obtains, maintains and handles all firearms for the production, and works with the designated safety representative to ensure that standards are met.

Before any use of a firearm in a rehearsal, everyone involved is briefed in an “on-site walk through” or “dry run”. The brief includes an explanation of the intended action, possible deviations, plans to abort, emergency procedures, and a chain of command.

The guidelines state that nobody should be given a firearm until they are trained in safe handling, safe use, the safety lock, and proper firing procedures.

The rules add that anyone using a firearm on set must refrain from pointing it at anyone, including themselves, and if it is absolutely necessary to do so on camera, to consult the prop master or the safety representative.

Actors are told not to place their finger on the trigger until they are ready to shoot, and not to engage in “horseplay”.

It is the prop master’s job to inspect the firearm and barrel before and after every firing scene.

PPE such as protective shields, eye protection and hearing protection is to be used by all those close to the user or directly in the line of fire.

On film sets, prop guns include real guns as well as toy guns or defunct weapons. Genuine guns are typically used to add an element of authenticity to close-up shots. These are usually loaded with blanks or blank cartridges, not bullets.

A cartridge is essentially one unit of ammunition that is fed into the barrel of a gun and is made up of four basic components – the casing or shell, propellant material or gunpowder, a primer or an explosive compound that ignites the gun powder, and finally the bullet or projectile that is fired from the barrel.

When the gun’s firing pin hits the primer and ignites the gunpowder, it causes an explosion of extremely hot gases that sends the bullet flying out of the barrel. The shell is then ejected and falls to the floor.

A blank cartridge contains all the components except for the bullet or projectile. Instead, the tip is sealed with materials such as paper wadding or wax.

Despite there being no bullet, prop guns loaded with blank cartridges can still cause significant damage to anyone within shooting range. This is because firing a blank still causes the explosion of gases, recoil, muzzle flash, and an ejected casing.

Blanks can still be fatally dangerous – like in the case of Jon-Erik Hexum, a 26-year-old actor who died on the set of the TV show Cover Up in 1984. While bored during a break in production, he jokingly pointed a prop pistol loaded with blanks to his temple and fired, not realising the weapon still contained gunpowder, which propels the wadding.

The force fractured his skull and drove a segment of bone into his brain, leading to his death by haemorrhage.

After news of the Rust shooting broke, #BrandonLee began trending on Twitter. Users recalled that action superstar Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon, had died in 1993 after he was shot by a prop gun firing blanks on the set of movie The Crow.

Brandon Lee (Rex Features)
Brandon Lee (Rex Features)

In Lee’s case, the gun was improperly loaded. A cartridge with the projectile tip had become stuck, and when the blank round was fired, it pushed the live round out. He died at the age of 28.

According to an estimate by the Associated Press, there have been 43 fatalities on American film sets since 1990, with another 150 actors or crew members left with life-altering injuries as a result of accidents, often the result of botched stunts staged on location.

Not all of them have involved guns. To give examples from recent years, a lorry driver, John Suttles, was killed in a fall from a truck bed while making Marvel’s The Avengers in 2011, and stuntwoman Joi “SJ” Harris was killed in a motorcycle crash while making Deadpool 2 in 2018.

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