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The Why of the Gun

Perhaps the question isn’t who should be in charge of firearms on set, but why they need to be there at all

Prosecutors have said they would charge Alec Baldwin with two counts of involuntary manslaughter in the killing of Rust cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, 42, saying they believed he had a duty to ensure the revolver was safe to handle.

The prosecutors who decided to bring criminal charges in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer said Mr. Baldwin should have ensured his gun was safe. Some armorers questioned that. Baldwin, meanwhile, has tried to defend himself against the allegations that he bore responsibility for the fatal shooting. He told detectives he had been assured the gun he was rehearsing with that day on the New Mexico set did not contain live ammunition and has countersued crew members on the film, claiming that they were responsible for handing him a loaded gun.

The film’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who loaded the gun that day and was responsible for weapons on the set, will also be charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter. The film’s first assistant director, Dave Halls, who handed the gun to Baldwin, agreed to a plea deal on a charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon.

This is a tragic, difficult subject to navigate – and the loss has splintered into a different conversation about accountability. SAG-AFTRA, the union representing film, television and radio workers, said in a statement that Hutchins’ death of M Hutchins was a “preventable” tragedy but that it was “not a failure of duty or a criminal act on the part of any performer.” Halls called out “cold gun,” indicating that it did not have live ammunition, when he handed the revolver to Mr. Baldwin, according to court papers filed earlier. But the prosecutors in New Mexico who made the decision to charge the actor Baldwin with involuntary manslaughter for the fatal shooting of a cinematographer on the Rust movie set said on Thursday that he bore responsibility for ensuring that the gun he was handed did not contain live rounds.

There is no hard-and-fast rule that says an actor must check a gun. A performer is not required to, nor licensed for, weapon safety on set. Yes, an actor doing their due diligence could check for themselves just to ensure that a weapon is not loaded – “check your props,” as the saying goes – but not doing so doesn’t make one liable. The armorer bears the responsibility, and in the case of Rust, the oversight cost a life. (The film’s director, Joel Souza, was also wounded at the time.)

“Baldwin believed, based on prior gun safety training he received on movie sets, that actors should not unilaterally check guns for live ammunition,” one of his lawyers asserted. “If actors want to check a gun for their own peace of mind, they should check the gun only with the armorer closely supervising the process.” Complicating matters slightly? Gutierrez-Reed was not in the building at the time of the shooting due to coronavirus protocols that limited how many people could be present.

There’s no satisfactory outcome to this case, and no way to turn back time and save Hutchins. But one question lingers: why must we ever use real firearms on set or onstage? Can’t fake props be doctored to look convincing enough? Can’t CGI or other post-production procedures help to provide a sense of verisimilitude for violent scenes that involves guns? Surely there must be a way to portray scenes of gun violence without requiring real guns. As people continue to point fingers and determine best practices, and an inevitably ugly legal battle looms, maybe we need to step back and find a way to safely stage these scenes. Yes, we want the world of make believe to look as real as possible. But surely there is a way to ensure that senseless deaths like Hutchins’ (and Jon-Erik Hexum’s, and Brandon Lee’s) can stay a thing of the past.