The Alec Baldwin ‘Rust’ Tragedy

It appears that normal safeguards were ignored, leading to disaster on the set.

Yesterday morning, I awoke to news that the actor Alec Baldwin had fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza with a prop gun while filming a low-budget film. Aside from the pain this would cause the people involved, my main thoughts were how this could possibly happen. Why would live ammunition be used without multiple safeguards in place?

The preliminary investigation points to multiple people simply being unqualified for the job.

WSJ (“Alec Baldwin Told Prop Was ‘Cold Gun’ Before Fatal Shooting, Affidavit Says“):

It was early Thursday afternoon on the set of the Western movie “Rust” at a bucolic ranch outside of town when, according to authorities, the assistant director grabbed one of three prop guns laid out on a rolling cart and handed it to Alec Baldwin to film a scene.

“Cold Gun” the assistant director yelled, indicating the gun didn’t have live rounds, according to a search warrant affidavit prepared by a detective with the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office.

But something went wrong.

Mr. Baldwin, the star of the movie being filmed near Santa Fe, took the gun and fired, the affidavit said. Halyna Hutchins, a 42-year-old cinematographer born in Ukraine, suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the chest, according to the affidavit and the Sheriff’s Office. Joel Souza, the director, 48, was behind Ms. Hutchins on the set and shot in the shoulder, according to the affidavit and the authorities. Mr. Baldwin’s Old West-style costume was stained with what appeared to be blood, according to the affidavit.

A spokesman for the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office said late Friday that investigators were still trying to figure out what type of projectile was shot out of the gun and how a day of filming turned deadly.

No charges have been filed in the shooting, according to officials. Interviews with people familiar with the set said the production was hampered by poor working conditions and a walkout this week by camera operators. It couldn’t be determined if the disruptions contributed to the shooting incident Thursday.

The detective who prepared the affidavit said he learned that Dave Halls, the assistant director, “did not know live rounds were in the prop-gun” when he gave it to Mr. Baldwin, the affidavit said. Mr. Halls didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The affidavit identified the armorer on set as Hannah Gutierrez, also identified as Hannah Gutierrez Reed in a set call sheet for the film reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Armorers are in charge of handling the safety and use of prop guns on a set. They are also tasked with ensuring there are no projectiles in the prop firearms among other safety precautions, said people familiar with the job.

Ms. Gutierrez Reed had arranged the guns on the cart, the affidavit said. After the incident, she took the gun back and removed a spent casing before handing it to sheriff’s deputies who had arrived at the scene, the affidavit said.

Ms. Gutierrez Reed, 24 years old, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Ms. Gutierrez Reed had recently completed her first film as head armorer on “The Old Way” starring Nicolas Cage, according to a podcast interview she gave last month. She said in the interview with the “Voices of the West” podcast that she almost didn’t take the job because she was nervous, but the filming ended up going well.

Ms. Gutierrez Reed is the daughter of the famous armorer and movie gun consultant Thell Reed, who she said trained her. When reached on a cellphone of Mr. Reed’s, a man who answered said he didn’t know about the accident and wasn’t there.

Deputies were also searching for video from the set that might have captured the incident and for documents that show who owned the guns, among other items, according to the affidavit.

Mr. Baldwin, who changed out of his costume after the shooting, according to the affidavit, was later questioned by law enforcement. A photo from the Santa Fe New Mexican shows a distraught Mr. Baldwin hunched over in the parking lot of the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Office following the shooting.

In a Twitter statement, Mr. Baldwin said he was cooperating with the investigation. “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,” he said.

[…]

Professionals on movie sets are trained to follow heightened safety protocols around weapons, said Stephen Lighthill, president of the American Society of Cinematographers.

“What it means is that somebody was tired, somebody didn’t follow protocol, someone didn’t hire the right person,” said Mr. Lighthill, speaking generally. “It’s not an accident, it’s a preventable incident. We’re all well schooled in how to avoid those problems,” he said.

That Gutierrez Reed is only 24 is not dispositive. While that sounds young to be the lead armorer on a movie, she’d done it before and was presumably well trained by her father. While not exactly the same, I had ran multiple live-fire ranges as an Army lieutenant by that age. But even with trained soldiers, there are multiple layers of safeguards built into non-combat situations any time ammunition, whether live or blank, is issued. Clearly, they were not being followed on this set.

Accidental fatal gunshots on Hollywood sets are rare but have occurred before. Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce and Linda Lee, was killed in 1993 by an accidental gunshot wound on “The Crow” set.

At least 43 people have died on film sets in the U.S. since 1990, according to an Associated Press investigation from 2016, while more than 150 suffered life-altering injuries.

A NYT report (“Recent Accidents on TV and Movie Sets“) details several of these incidents. In most cases, protocols were loosely followed but no criminal or civil liability was found.

An LAT report (“‘Rust’ crew describes on-set gun safety issues and misfires days before fatal shooting“) is rather damning, however.

Hours before actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot a cinematographer on the New Mexico set of “Rust” with a prop gun, a half-dozen camera crew workers walked off the set to protest working conditions.

The camera operators and their assistants were frustrated by the conditions surrounding the low-budget film, including complaints about long hours, long commutes and waiting for their paychecks, according to three people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to comment.

Safety protocols standard in the industry, including gun inspections, were not strictly followed on the “Rust” set near Santa Fe, the sources said. They said at least one of the camera operators complained last weekend to a production manager about gun safety on the set.

Three crew members who were present at the Bonanza Creek Ranch set on Saturday said they were particularly concerned about two accidental prop gun discharges.

Baldwin’s stunt double accidentally fired two rounds Saturday after being told that the gun was “cold” — lingo for a weapon that doesn’t have any ammunition, including blanks — two crew members who witnessed the episode told the Los Angeles Times.

“There should have been an investigation into what happened,” a crew member said. “There were no safety meetings. There was no assurance that it wouldn’t happen again. All they wanted to do was rush, rush, rush.”

A colleague was so alarmed by the prop gun misfires that he sent a text message to the unit production manager. “We’ve now had 3 accidental discharges. This is super unsafe,” according to a copy of the message reviewed by The Times.

Filming began 12 days before the fatal incident and there had been three prior accidental discharges? That just seems outrageously incompetent.

“The safety of our cast and crew is the top priority of Rust Productions and everyone associated with the company, ” Rust Movie Productions said in a statement. “Though we were not made aware of any official complaints concerning weapon or prop safety on set, we will be conducting an internal review of our procedures while production is shut down. We will continue to cooperate with the Santa Fe authorities in their investigation and offer mental health services to the cast and crew during this tragic time.”

The tragedy occurred Thursday afternoon during filming of a gunfight that began in a church that is part of the old Western town at the ranch. Baldwin’s character was supposed to back out of the church, according to production notes obtained by The Times. It was the 12th day of a 21-day shoot.

Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was huddled around a monitor lining up her next camera shot when she was accidentally killed by the prop gun fired by Baldwin.

The actor was preparing to film a scene in which he pulls a gun out of a holster, according to a source close to the production. Crew members had already shouted “cold gun” on the set. The filmmaking team was lining up its camera angles and had yet to retreat to the video village, an on-set area where the crew gathers to watch filming from a distance via a monitor.

Instead, the B-camera operator was on a dolly with a monitor, checking out the potential shots. Hutchins was also looking at the monitor from over the operator’s shoulder, as was the movie’s director, Joel Souza, who was crouching just behind her.

Baldwin removed the gun from its holster once without incident, but the second time he did so, ammunition flew toward the trio around the monitor. The projectile whizzed by the camera operator but penetrated Hutchins near her shoulder, then continued through to Souza. Hutchins immediately fell to the ground as crew members applied pressure to her wound in an attempt to stop the bleeding.

Late Friday, the Associated Press reported that Baldwin was handed a loaded weapon by an assistant director who indicated it was safe to use in the moments before the actor fired it, according to court records. The assistant director did not know the prop gun was loaded with live rounds, according to a search warrant filed in a Santa Fe County court.

It’s not known how live ammunition was in the weapon Baldwin fired. Or, hell, on the set at all. But a “cold gun” is one with no ammunition at all. Not even blanks. On what basis were multiple people shouting “cold gun” when it was in fact loaded? Surely, it was someone’s job to ensure the gun was cold before handing it to Baldwin, let alone before yelling “cold gun” and allowing a (one presumes) barely-trained-on-firearms actor to play fast draw with it?

Aside from sheer incompetence, it appears that people were sleep-deprived as well:

Labor trouble had been brewing for days on the dusty set at the Bonanza Creek Ranch near Santa Fe.

Shooting began on Oct. 6 and members of the low-budget film said they had been promised the production would pay for their hotel rooms in Santa Fe.

But after filming began, the crews were told they instead would be required to make the 50-mile drive from Albuquerque each day, rather than stay overnight in nearby Santa Fe. That rankled crew members who worried that they might have an accident after spending 12 to 13 hours on the set.

Hutchins had been advocating for safer conditions for her team and was tearful when the camera crew left, said one crew member who was on the set.

“She said, ‘I feel like I’m losing my best friends,'” recalled one of the workers.

As the camera crew — members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — spent about an hour assembling their gear at the Bonanza Creek Ranch, several nonunion crew members showed up to replace them, two of the knowledgeable people said.

One of the producers ordered the union members to leave the set and threatened to call security to remove them if they didn’t leave voluntarily.

“Corners were being cut — and they brought in nonunion people so they could continue shooting,” the knowledgeable person said.

The shooting occurred about six hours after the union camera crew left.

Given that it was surely not the camera crew’s responsibility to oversee firearms safety on set, I don’t think the use of non-union people factored into the incident. Still, while a mindset that getting the film done fast and cheap is likely a hallmark of the business, especially on the low-budget end, the sheer disdain for the well-being of the people working on the movie certainly speaks to a huge leadership problem. Regardless of budget issues, one simply can’t demand people drive 50 miles each way to their beds on top of a 12-13 hour workday and expect them to function at their best.

I’d really like to hear from people, notably @EddieInCA and @wr, with deep experience in the industry. From an outside perspective, this simply shouldn’t have happened. I’m old enough to remember when Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed filming the “Twilight Zone” movie almost forty years ago. It was a freak accident in a situation that was inherently dangerous. But firearms safety is simply too easy to maintain for accidental shootings to happen on a movie set.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    I don’t understand how prop guns could ever have live ammo in them.

    9
  2. HarvardLaw92 says:

    At the very least, the armorer is now exposed to tampering with evidence, but that doesn’t really begin to scratch the surface of the culpability / liability here.

    2
  3. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Baldwin removed the gun from its holster once without incident, but the second time he did so, ammunition flew toward the trio around the monitor.

    I’m intrigued by this as well. Are they saying that he removed the weapon and it fired because the trigger was pulled, or are they saying he removed it and it just spontaneously fired? The first would be bad enough, but the second is infinitely worse.

    1
  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    That just seems outrageously incompetent.

    It is.

    On what basis were multiple people shouting “cold gun” when it was in fact loaded? Surely, it was someone’s job to ensure the gun was cold before handing it to Baldwin, let alone before yelling “cold gun” and allowing a (one presumes) barely-trained-on-firearms actor to play fast draw with it?

    I was taught that every gun is loaded. That when I was handed a firearm, no matter who said what, my first action was to insure that the weapon was in fact unloaded, and then to handle it as tho it was loaded. This was just basic firearm safety. Telling somebody a firearm was unloaded when one had not personally visually confirmed that fact is malpractice of the highest order in my book.

    Not that it has any direct bearing on this incident, but a lot has changed over the years. Used to be in deer camp, the first thing one did on returning to camp was unload one’s rifle and put it in storage. Nobody walked around with a handgun on their hip. Noticed a couple years ago on a visit that the rules have changed. Most are walking around strapped with a pop gun just in case a psycho ‘possum tries to steal the chicken wings off the grill.

    Gun culture has gone insane and it infects every part of society. Again, I doubt that fact has any bearing here, just a side comment on the madness of our society.

    20
  5. Cheryl Rofer says:

    I am seeing several different accounts of what happened. I doubt that any of them are reliable, although, with time and investigation, some may turn out to be more accurate than others.

    The handling of the gun(s) in particular has multiple narratives. I was told yesterday by a person who has worked with film crews in the past and lives close enough to the site to have seen the police cars and helicopters that they never use real guns that can shoot bullets. Obviously that was not the case here.

    The two things that seem obvious are 1) using real guns in simulated shootings is dangerous and 2) safety precautions were not followed in this case.

    I am not a gun expert, but I have dealt with safety issues in handling plutonium and work with heavy equipment (not both at the same time). It seems to me that everyone who handled that gun has a responsibility to make sure it can’t fire real bullets.

    2
  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Via commentor Starfish over at BJ, a twitter thread by an armorer:

    SL Huang 黄士芬
    @sl_huang

    A lot of people are messaging me about yesterday’s tragedy that was an on-set firearms death (because I am a film armorer, for those who don’t know).

    As both a human and a professional, it is extremely upsetting. My thoughts are with Halyna Hutchins’ loved ones

    Very informative.

    3
  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: According to the armorer in the above link, operating firearms are quite often used on film sets, but there are procedures for the handling and keeping of them as well as the actual use.

  8. Cheryl Rofer says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: What my lunch companion was referring to was movies made in New Mexico. I’ve read the threads saying that real guns are used and the safety precautions associated with them. I think we simply don’t know the details of what happened and certainly not why in this case. It does seem to me that using real guns adds a level of danger that probably isn’t justified.

    I saw one thread from an assistant director, I think, arguing that real guns should never be used, and that the arguments that only they can produce the realistic effects necessary are coming from macho.

  9. Cheryl Rofer says:

    My point in citing my lunch companion is that there are a number of narratives circulating from people with different backgrounds and interests. Not surprising at this point, but all to be taken with a grain of salt.

    1
  10. NBH says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    It could be the first time he pulled the gun out he never pulled the trigger.

    Another option because of the design of revolvers (I assume a revolver from the location/scene) is he did pull the trigger the first time but no bullet/blank was in the cylinder slot for the first firing. Then the second time the trigger was pulled there was a bullet from the cylinder rotating to the next slot. i.e. Someone fucked up and had the gun partially loaded, giving a very false sense of safety when the first trigger pull did nothing.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Yep. The guy I linked to above was very specific that he can not speak to the particulars of this case. Way too soon for anyone to “know” what happened.

    1
  12. CSK says:

    Yesterday the story I read most frequently was that the gun was loaded with a blank, but there was something caught in the barrel that got propelled out when the gun was fired.

  13. EddieInCA says:

    Here is the proper protocol for using a gun, any gun on set.

    1. Gun is kept locked, unloaded, until it’s taken out to be used.
    2. Armourer and Prop person clear the gun completely, leaving the slide open and the clip out. Or, with a revolver, the chambers empty.
    3. They lay the gun out, slide open, (chambers empty in a revolver) empty clip next to it.
    4. They bring the actor and First Assistant Director over, and hand the 1st AD the empty gun.
    5. The 1st Asst. Director checks it, looking down the barrel to make sure there is nothing in there.
    6. Armourer loads blanks into the gun.
    7. Armourer hands gun to actor and says “Hot Gun”.
    8. Roll camera

    No one other than the Armourer, Prop Person, or 1st AD should NEVER touch or hold the gun.

    During the safety meeting, Mr. Baldwin should have been reminded to shoot “off target” – never pointing the gun directly at anyone, but rather a foot left or right. (Camera can’t tell the difference).

    On my last three shows involving any sort of gunfire, we used 100% fake guns that aren’t capable of firing. Muzzle flashes were added in post production with VFX. In this day and age, there is no reason to ever use blanks or live ammo while filming.

    It’s a horrible tragedy, and for the 50-60 people on set who witnessed it, it will scar them forever.

    25
  14. CSK says:

    According to some crackpot right-wing conspiracy “news” site, Bill and Hillary Clinton are behind this. I posted the web address on today’s open forum; I don’t have the stomach to repeat it here.

    I can’t express my contempt for these swine. Are they evil? Crazy? Crazy and evil?

    We laugh at these people–justifiably–but should we?

    2
  15. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA: Thanks for this. And, yes, it strikes me that it’s inconceivable that the film can’t be made with guns that are inert at this stage.

    And this:

    It’s a horrible tragedy, and for the 50-60 people on set who witnessed it, it will scar them forever.

    is what keeps coming to my mind. Baldwin, especially, will have to live with this forever and people simply should never have allowed him to be in a position to make this mistake.

    3
  16. gVOR08 says:

    Over at Balloon Juice Tom Levenson describes the extreme care taken with firearms as he directed a tight budget documentary. The armourer, a retired military firearms instructor, cleared the weapon, loaded one blank, handed it to the actor, took it back from the actor after the scene, and cleared it again. No one else handled the guns.

    Levenson makes the point that while Baldwin is a victim of whoever screwed up, he was also the (a?) producer, responsible for hiring and managing whoever screwed up. Levenson also notes the basic rule that all guns are loaded, even if you personally just cleared it, and you never point one at anything you don’t intend to shoot.

    I hardly claim expertise, but a technical point. The movie is described as a western so the gun is presumably a period “six shooter”, i.e. a single action revolver. The hammer has to be cocked before each shot, usually with the shooter’s thumb. If the hammer slips before being fully cocked, it can fire. Doing exactly that while practicing a quick draw seems a fairly common firearms accident.

    A few years ago there was a classic news story. Hilarious, except for the part about the guy dying. Guy was arguing with his wife. He pulled out his revolver, cocked it, and threatened to shoot her dog. Then apparently did the movie thing of rocking the gun back in his hand to get his thumb on the hammer to uncock it, and shot himself in the head.

  17. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: You’re right. The producer(s) should have taken steps to insure Baldwin wasn’t put in this position. See my comment above @gVOR08:

  18. CSK says:

    @gVOR08:
    Baldwin was the producer, along with Anjul Nigam.

  19. EddieInCA says:

    @CSK: @gVOR08:

    Having a title as “Producer” may or may not mean anything. My current show has 17 producers. Of those 17, three of us (Greg Berlanti, me, and our Showrunner), have the power to hire or fire. And only one (me) is responsible for hiring the below the line crew. So just because he has the title of “Producer” doesn’t mean he had any power, or oversight, other than being the star of the film. It’s also safe to assume that Baldwin was given a “Producer” title because his involvement in the film is what allowed the financiers to fund the film.

    Film and Television credits are much more nuanced than most people understand.

    11
  20. CSK says:

    @EddieInCA:
    I get that. A similar situation is when the author of a book that’s being turned into a film is given the title of “executive producer.” No duties, just the credit. Am I correct?

    1
  21. EddieInCA says:

    @CSK:

    Sometimes a Fee as well as the credit. But, yes. No duties or responsibilities.

    1
  22. Daniel Hill says:

    there are multiple layers of safeguards built into non-combat situations any time ammunition, whether live or blank, is issued

    As ex-army, that was my exact reaction. When I explained those procedures to my wife, she thought them excessive. I had to stress that was why I know several guys who died in training from vehicular accidents but none from firearms incidents.

    As for the unintended discharges, again how could they be so cavalier? At least in the Australian army (and I assume it’s the same elsewhere) EVERY single UD results in charges and an investigation. It is a f–king big deal.

    6
  23. Gustopher says:

    We really need a word or phrase that is stronger than “accident,” but doesn’t imply intent. The “and then the entirely foreseeable and preventable semi-rare tragedy happened that was caused by cutting corners and playing the odds too many times” scenario.

    Legally, “negligent homicide” fits the bill, but it has a long process for official certification. We need something colloquial.

    It would also be handy for antivaxxers getting covid and dying.

    2
  24. Beth says:

    There’s always misadventure or accidental misadventure. It’s where the risk was assumed voluntarily but the outcome was unintended.

    1
  25. Franklin says:

    @Gustopher: Elsewhere, I saw it called a preventable incident.