By: Peter Suciu
Throughout the weekend, details continued to emerge in the wake of the accidental but fatal shooting that resulted in the death of Halyan Hutchins on a New Mexico movie set on Thursday.
What is known so far is that the cinematographer was shot and killed after actor Alec Baldwin was reportedly handed a loaded weapon despite being told it was safe.
Instead, tragically the handgun was apparently loaded with live rounds, and when Baldwin pulled the trigger on the set of the film Rust, he killed Hutchins and seriously wounded director Joel Souza. Such events should never have happened, and it seems that firearms safety protocols, as well as Hollywood rules, were blatantly ignored. Baldwin, who has appeared in numerous films where his characters have used firearms, has also been an advocate for gun control.
Baldwin failed to follow the first rule of firearms safety, which is to assume any gun is loaded. It appears that instead of checking to determine if the weapon he was handed was, in fact, "cold," he took the word of the production's assistant director Dave Halls, who reportedly handed the gun to the actor.
According to the Associated Press, the gun was one of three that the film's armorer, Hannah Gutierrez, had set on a cart outside the wooden structure where a scene in the western was being filmed. As the armorer, Gutierrez was responsible for providing the firearms. Halls then took the firearm from that cart and brought it inside and handed it to Baldwin, reportedly unaware that it was loaded with live rounds, a detective wrote in the search warrant application.
It is simply baffling why live rounds would be anywhere near a film set. This reporter has previously interviewed several armorers over the years, and one point that was noted every single time is that safety is paramount. There is a huge misunderstanding on what is a "prop gun," and it has been noted that even firearms that have been modified only to shoot blanks can still be dangerous and even deadly if misused.
There was clearly gross negligence on multiple individuals' part.
Maggie Goll, a prop maker and licensed pyrotechnician, said in a statement that she had previously filed an internal complaint with the executive producers of Hulu's Into the Dark series in 2019 over concerns with Halls, regarding his behavior on the set. In an interview with Market Watch on Sunday, Goll said Halls had disregarded safety protocols for weapons and pyrotechnics, and in one incident, apparently continued to film after a supervising pyrotechnician lost consciousness on set.
How does this happen? Well, as someone who has worked on an independent film project, money is all too often the overlying factor. While the production I worked on didn't involve firearms, and was set primarily in an office, it was a race against time. Everything from the availability of the actors to the rental costs on the equipment meant that time was the one thing that couldn't be wasted. Lower budget productions, which apparently included the film Rust, are often rushed.
Sadly, this was a case where the level of rushing resulted in someone's death.
Halls grabbed the gun off the cart, and he clearly didn't check it. Instead, he yelled, "cold gun," the term that means it was safe. Baldwin then accepted the word of the assistant director. Goll said that this tragedy shouldn't have happened because there are normally so many steps that should have been taken, but time was money and now someone is dead.
What makes this even worse in some ways is that Hutchins had remained on the set after a walkout the morning of the incident over safety. Actor Jonathan McAbee told People magazine that Hutchins "felt the responsibility for everyone else's job there."
A production sources told People that crew members had been "concerned and angry" and that half a dozen camera operators and their assistants walked off the set in protest of tiring working conditions, long hours and long commutes. The source also said that three crew members had been concerned about previous accidental prop gun discharges.
Understanding Guns and Movies
In addition to why live ammunition was anywhere near the set, another question is why Baldwin needed a gun that could fire – as he apparently seemed to have aimed it in Hutchins’ direction? In most cases, actors are provided non-functional firearms, except when necessary.
Montgomery Pollack, vice president of The Hand Prop Room in Los Angeles, one of Hollywood's biggest suppliers of movie props, previously told me, "If the gun is not firing, rubber or resin replicas, even metal replicas are used. If you have a scene with 12 people holding guns but maybe only one of them fires, there is no need for all of them to have real weapons."
The sentiment was shared by Jon Funk of Mantis Armourer, who explained, "I like rubber guns for those background scenes because no one can be hurt – at least not easily – from a rubber gun."
Already there have been calls from some in Hollywood to ban any gun that can even fire blanks, and that the effect of a firearm being fired can be added in post-production.
"With the price of CGI these days, productions only need to rent weapons that look good," said Pollack. "The background can be all done CGI."
Because guns that fire blanks are still used, accidents can occur. Back in the 1980s, actor Jon-Erik Hexum was killed when he pointed a blank-loaded .44 Magnum revolver at his head and pulled the trigger.
"This is why it is important to have a professional gun wrangler," said Funk. "Actors shouldn't be allowed to 'play with' or otherwise handle the firearms except when the camera is rolling."
In the case of Rust, instead of a gun wrangler, the production had the assistant director take over the duties. Bill Davis of Tactical Edge Group, and a prop master for more than 30 years, also had told me previously that the gun wrangler or armorer should be there to watch how any guns will be used.
"It is the director's job to worry about whether the scene works," said Davis. "But I'm looking at it strictly from the point of view of safety. The choreography of shootouts can be as intense as a Hollywood musical and that requires that everyone does their job."
Sadly, multiple individuals didn't do their job. Now Hutchins is dead.
Updated: TMZ is reporting that the weapon that killed Hutchins may have been used in off-site "target practice." Additionally, the police found that blanks and live ammunition were stored in the same area. If either (or both) of these reports is true, it shows a serious lapse in judgement and safety protocols.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.