By Aara Ramesh
Just over a week after an accidental shooting on the set of the film “Rust” claimed the life of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, 42, and injured director Joel Souza, 48, Hollywood is undergoing something of a reckoning in regards to gun safety on sets and the hiring protocols for certain sensitive positions.
The shooting occurred shortly after lunch on Thursday, Oct. 21, outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. Producer-star Alec Baldwin was rehearsing a scene for the Western when he was handed a prop gun, which he was audibly assured was “cold” (i.e., unloaded). He was meant to point the gun at the camera, behind which several members of the crew were standing. When he set off the shot, a projectile hit Hutchins and went through her to hit Souza in the shoulder.
This incident — not the first of its kind in the industry’s history — has thrown up duelling narratives that are distinct and yet connected. On one hand, many are questioning the protocols governing gun safety on sets and whether, in the age of advanced visual effects and computer graphics, real guns are even needed on sets.
On the other hand, labor and hiring practices have been thrust into the limelight as well. Protesting working conditions, a number of the crew had walked off the set the day of the shooting, and a new replacement crew had been brought in. Little is known about the credentials of that non-union team and whether they were adequately trained on gun safety.
Two crew members have come under particular scrutiny. One is Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, 24, the armorer, i.e., the person on set who is in charge of any weapons. The other is assistant director Dave Halls.
Experienced armorers in the industry expressed surprise to news outlets that Gutierrez-Reed was given the top position after having only worked in such a role once before. In 2019, Halls was apparently fired from the set of “Freedom’s Path” after a crew member sustained a “minor and temporary injury when a gun was unexpectedly discharged.” He has, in the past, been the subject of multiple complaints regarding gun safety protocols, according to reports. It is not yet clear what the producers of “Rust” knew about his past before Halls was hired or what vetting process the crew was put through.
Gutierrez-Reed says she put the three prop guns on the cart, but Halls was the one to pick it up, declare it was “cold,” and pass it onto Baldwin. In the search warrant, Halls said he did not know it was loaded with live rounds. He also admitted that Gutierrez-Reed opened the firearm for his inspection, and that although he was supposed to check all the rounds before passing it onto Baldwin, he did not do so before saying it was safe. If Halls was indeed the last to handle the gun before Baldwin, one industry veteran says, that was in violation of rules and best practices.
Law enforcement announced Wednesday, Oct. 27, that they believe a real bullet was loaded into the revolver, though they did not disclose who did that. For her part, Gutierrez-Reed says that live ammunition was never kept on set and she has no idea where any live rounds found might have come from.
There are three types of guns used on sets, according to CNN. They are either completely fake models that look real but cannot fire; actual deactivated firearms; and real guns that are “loaded with blanks and mimic actual shooting, from flash to recoil.” Laws regulating gun and workplace safety on sets vary from state to state, if they even exist. In general, however, those that handle a real weapon on set follow a specific set of practices.
The order of who handles the weapon is carefully mapped out and is meant to be strictly adhered to. On the set of “Rust,” however, crew members say few of these protocols were followed. For one, both Halls and Gutierrez-Reed handed the weapons to the actors, when in actuality, only one was supposed to.
Further, reporting in recent days has revealed that gun inspections and other safety protocols were not followed on the set. Allegedly, the same gun that killed Hutchins was used earlier that day by some crew members to shoot at beer cans with live ammunition, as a way to pass time. Other sources within the crew said there were no safety meetings on set — something that is unusual for movies in which real guns are being used.
On Oct. 16, multiple sources said, Baldwin’s stunt double accidentally fired two live rounds after being told the gun was cold. This prompted one camera operator to submit a complaint. The Los Angeles Times said it viewed the message in question, which was sent to the unit production manager and which read: “We’ve now had 3 accidental discharges. This is super unsafe.”
Industry insiders and critics say that the “Rust” production appears to have been rushed and that producers were cutting corners on safety to save money, which is particularly alarming on any set where live weapons are being used. The Santa Fe County Sheriff even acknowledged that there was “some complacency” in gun safety on set. Allegedly, investigators found 500 rounds of ammunition that were a mix of blanks, dummy rounds, and suspected live rounds.
Production on the film has been halted until the investigation is complete, though the producers could still face civil lawsuits for months ahead. Meanwhile, Hollywood continues the debate over hiring practices and safety standards on sets. An Associated Press analysis concluded that in the three decades since 1991, at least 43 people have been killed on film sets in the U.S. and that over 150 were left with life-altering injuries.