The ‘Rust’ shooting spurs a debate over using guns on film sets
By Julia Jacobs
Ever since actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot the cinematographer of the film “Rust” last month with a gun he had been told, incorrectly, contained no live ammunition, the debate over the use of firearms on sets has been growing.
Dwayne Johnson — the action star whose production company has made gun-filled films like the “Fast & Furious” spinoff “Hobbs & Shaw” — told Variety last week that the company would no longer use real guns on set. Dozens of cinematographers have signed a commitment not to work on projects using functional firearms. And a state lawmaker in California is drafting legislation that would ban operational firearms from sets. Baldwin, who was a producer of “Rust” as well as its star, weighed in this week with his own suggestion: Productions should hire police officers to monitor safety. Baldwin posted Monday on his Twitter and Instagram accounts: “Every film/TV set that uses guns, fake or otherwise, should have a police officer on set, hired by the production, to specifically monitor weapons safety.”
But many in the film industry see the tragedy more as a problem of failing to adhere to existing firearms safety protocols than of requiring new, stricter protocols, and it is unclear if any of the proposed changes will have the momentum to come to fruition.
The “Rust” shooting happened on Oct. 21, after an old-fashioned revolver was placed in Baldwin’s hands and proclaimed “cold,” meaning that it should not have contained live ammunition. But it did: As Baldwin practiced drawing the gun for a scene, it fired a real bullet, law-enforcement officials said, killing the film’s cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, and wounding its director, Joel Souza. There should not have been any live ammunition on the set at all, according to court papers, and law-enforcement officials are investigating how the gun came to be loaded with a lethal bullet.
The backlash to Baldwin’s proposal to have police officers monitor on-set gun safety included comments from industry veterans like David Simon, the creator of “The Wire,” who tweeted that “the average cop is no more a totem of gun safety than a trained film armorer.”
Then there are those calling to ban the use of functional guns — which are supposed to be loaded only with dummies or blanks — on sets. They say that technology has advanced to the point where special effects can create the illusion of convincing gunfire. After the shooting in New Mexico, Craig Zobel, the director of the HBO whodunit “Mare of Easttown,” noted that all the gunshots on that show were digital. But some studio executives say that there are times when visual effects are not sufficient, and that some actors struggle to make fake weapons that cannot even fire blanks appear convincing.
The calls for systematic change are complicated by the fact that it is still unclear exactly why the tragedy occurred.
Some crew members voiced concerns about the experience level of the film’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, whose lawyers have defended her training and commitment to safety and faulted the production. And the film’s first assistant director, Dave Halls, told a detective investigating the case that he should have checked the gun more thoroughly before Baldwin handled it, according to an affidavit. (His lawyer later said in a television interview that checking the gun was not his job.) But the central question, of how a live round got into the revolver in the first place, remains a mystery.
Despite the remaining questions, the fatal shooting has spurred calls for change inside and outside the film and television industry.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said days after the shooting that “if the industry doesn’t come forward with very specific accountable safeguards, they should expect that we will.”
Stephen Lighthill, president of the American Society of Cinematographers and one of the prominent signers of the statement — first reported by Variety — pledging to avoid operational firearms on sets, said that there had not been a wide-scale conversation about what the industry standard should be before the “Rust” shooting. Cinematographers including Bill Pope of “The Matrix” and Mandy Walker of “Mulan” have signed on to the pledge. The statement was posted on social media with the hashtag #BanBlanks, calling for an end to the use of blank cartridges, which contain gunpowder and paper wadding or wax.
Another person who signed the statement, Reed Morano, a cinematographer who directed episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” wrote in an Instagram post that she had once been hit by a blank at close range while operating a camera and wished she had thought more about large-scale change then.
“How many more deaths do we need to mourn to prove that this must change?” Morano wrote.
In California, a Democratic state senator who represents Silicon Valley, Dave Cortese, has been drafting legislation that would ban operational firearms from sets, which he said would effectively also ban blanks. Cortese said in an interview that the current system for safety protocols around handling guns on sets — guidelines outlined by unions and production companies — was not sufficient to ensure enforcement and accountability.
“Right now what’s missing is the consequences,” he said. “Life and death is not an OK consequence of an error or omission.”
Another legislative approach that is being considered, Cortese said, is a restriction on certain kinds of blanks. But his preference is for an outright ban on operational firearms and blanks, which he thinks can be replaced with special effects.
“Some people say, ‘Why get rid of them?’” Cortese said. “Why have them? What’s the point in this day and age?”
He said he has scheduled a meeting this week with members of the union local that represents armorers, and a bill would likely be considered in February.
Those in the film industry who warn against making such rapid and wholesale changes to the industry say safety protocols are usually clear, and usually closely followed.
Michael Sabo, who was propmaster on “The Wire” and oversaw the use of operational guns on the set, said he thinks nonfunctional guns would appear fake to viewers. Instead of a ban, he favors tighter restrictions on who can handle them.
“You can have some of the best actors in the world, but if they pull a trigger and nothing happens, it’s not real,” he said. “That’s my biggest problem when they say we should ban guns on sets.”