Hollywood Guns, Guns in Movies
Perhaps the biggest irony is that just as Hollywood has become increasingly vocal about gun violence, today’s movies have become increasingly more violent.
(Photo by iStock)

Most folks know now know that Alec Baldwin allegedly negligently killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. He reportedly further injured director Joel Souza on the set of “Rust,” a western-themed movie. Baldwin allegedly drew and presented a firearm at Hutchins and Souza; movie staff reportedly told Baldwin the weapon was “cold” or unloaded. The internet is ablaze with what went wrong and who should be blamed and the answers are quite simple. Everybody is to blame, from the people involved with controlling the firearm, to Baldwin and even to some degree, the victims themselves. I’ve worked on the set of a major production–History Channel’s TOP SHOT. I also own and operate one of New York’s largest firearms academies. So I bring a unique perspective of the situation. So I want to share of bit of my experience on Hollywood Gun Safety and its failures.

Failures of Hollywood Gun Safety Protocols

First, let’s follow the gun from the armorer’s safe to Baldwin’s holster. Although “the projectile” has not been confirmed, it’s relatively clear that it was a bullet from a real or live round of ammunition. If it were just a piece of the case wall or a flake of the inside of the barrel, I doubt that it would have the energy to not only strike one person but also continue on to inflict a mortal wound.

With that theory, the armorer was negligent to keep live ammo away from other types of ammo, like blanks. We train our instructors at Renaissance Firearms Instruction to NEVER bring live ammo where unnecessary. When using classrooms or outside class areas, ammunition remains kept in a separate room, vehicle or on the firing line. Our dummy rounds (rounds that don’t go bang at all) exhibit a clearly different look. We never store it with or around live ammunition. Instructors confirm every dummy round before use in demo loading, firing, unloading or any other drill. Only then do instructors insert confirmed dummy rounds into a firearm.

Sounds excessive? Maybe. But we’ve never put a hole in a ceiling or wall–we stand proud of that. Now obviously, the armorer surely didn’t follow an equally effective protocol. Somehow, live ammunition seemingly found its way into Baldwin’s revolver (at least in theory).

Hollywood Done Right

TOP SHOT was unique, as we used a mix of live and blank ammunition on set. In my elimination challenge after I fired the course with live ammo, I got to run it again with blanks so the camera could grab extra footage of the action working, etc., as they didn’t want a cameraman that close when we were shooting (smart). We used transparent, concise armorers on our set. They organized everything, relaying clear instruction to all actions, to all those nearby.

Staff announced “Hot weapon on set, loaded with X-number of X rounds,” when guns came on the set. They informed when guns used either blank or live ammunition. In each instance, an armorer showed me the magazine, allowed me to remove it and inspect the rounds. They gave me the opportunity to load the gun myself, or they would load the gun in front of me. This all took place just to shoot into a hill of dirt with the camera crew behind me! They only used the word “cold” when a gun remained empty of any type of ammo, blank or otherwise.

This brings us to the shooter, Baldwin. Reports claim someone announced “cold weapon on set,” when handing the pistol to Baldwin. That would normally indicate a gun in a safe condition in use. Baldwin’s presumed negligence comes from failing to confirm a cold gun. He put the lives of others in the hands of someone else–strike one. Now, as a photographer and small-time videographer, I understand the importance of setting up a scene, and I at times have pointed a gun at a camera. Just that, a camera, on a tripod, without a human being behind it.

For setting up a shot that requires somebody to be behind the camera I go through the entire motion WITHOUT a gun in my hand and have my assistant make any adjustments that need to be made before hitting record and stepping safely behind me. Yes, this comprises more time, possibly an extra take or two. But a person’s life deems it necessary. Sadly, Baldwin and crew apparently failed to share that concern.

Untrained, Anti-Gun Actors

Strike two comes simply based on a theory, but one based on testing more than 30,000 students. Those students used at least that many guns or more. This theory proposes Baldwin pressed the trigger unintentionally. I read in multiple reports “the gun discharged,” eliminating the human component altogether. Mechanically feasible, it remains statistically implausible. Guns rarely go off by themselves; not once in my career have I nor any of my instructors experienced this. But untrained trigger fingers nearly always touch a trigger without realizing it.

Guns are designed to align your finger automatically with the trigger because you cannot see it when the gun is being held in front of you. At lest 80-percent of new shooters (read untrained) need correction from this dangerous behavior. They need training to inject safety into their muscle memory. In other words, you are born with this “bad habit,” and unless you work on correcting it right away you are going to potentially have a negligent discharge at some point. CNN and the Los Angeles Times reported the previous unexpected discharges on set correctly, when they wrote:

“There were at least two accidental prop gun discharges on the set in the days prior to the fatal shooting, according to multiple news reports. The discharges occurred on October 16, when crew members accidentally fired two rounds after being told the gun was “cold,” the Los Angeles Times reported, citing two crew members who reportedly witnessed the incident. It was not known if the discharges included live rounds.”

Here it is stated that the crew members fired two rounds, not the gun went off by accident twice, which is wildly impossible if this were a revolver, as cited by multiple sources.

Safety Rules Not Followed

While strike two is based on a theory, my strike three is an unequivocal fact, and that is guns don’t magically point themselves at people. Let’s go ahead and say the gun did experience a mechanical malfunction and went off by itself. If Baldwin pointed his gun even just a few inches to the side of the victims both would be alive today. This is often referred to as “The Golden Rule of Firearms Safety,” because it how the power to turn a tragedy like this one into just an embarrassing close call.

Lastly, and as callous as it may sound, Hutchins and Souza are partly responsible for the tragedy as well. Both trusted their lives to the hands of other people when there was absolutely no reason to do so. I bring this up with the hopes of saving future lives by reminding all those that work with firearms to never take someone else’s word that the gun is unloaded. Also, filmmakers ought to protest any armorer who works outside of that standard and doesn’t make it clear to all those on set what is happening. In an interview with the NY Post, Actor Ray Liotta, who is no stranger to guns on set, recalled his gun safety experiences and said:

“They give it to the person you’re pointing the gun at. They do it to the producer.” Liotta continued: “They show whoever is there that it doesn’t work.” This indicates that firearms safety is not a foreign concept on most sets and cast and crew should never settle for less.

Final Thoughts

In closing, the final guilty parties in this event are those involved with restricting access to firearms and attempting to shame gun culture. Experienced shooters’ immediate reactions ask “Why did he point it at them?” or “Why didn’t everybody check to make sure it wasn’t loaded/only had blanks in it?” That’s because we are used to being around guns. Sadly, both of the victims and Baldwin were not with the actor, spending much of his career attacking gun owners and organizations that organize and teach safety courses. If Baldwin would have spent a fraction of the time he spends blasting gun advocate groups sitting in an NRA Pistol course, he would have learned the three rules of firearms safety:

  1. ALWAYS keep your gun pointed in a safe direction
  2. NEVER put your finger on the trigger until you are ready to shoot
  3. NEVER load a gun until you are ready to fire.

Unfortunately, his agenda was more important to him than the lives of Halyna Hutchins and Joel Souza, may they rest in peace.

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