October 21st started as any other day of filming on the set of Rust. Alec Baldwin was rehearsing a scene in which he would cross-draw a revolver and point it directly at the camera lens. Once shooting was to begin, an assistant director grabbed a prop gun from the armorer on set, confirming the gun was cold, indicating a lack of live ammunition in the weapon. This was not the case, and this grave error proved fatal for 42 year old Halyna Hutchins, the film’s director of photography. Halyna was hit in the chest by a live round fired from the weapon wielded by Mr. Baldwin, and was rushed to the University of New Mexico Hospital. She was pronounced dead some time after arrival. In addition, the director of the film, 48 year old Joel Souza, was shot in the shoulder.
Baldwin was heartbroken after realizing what he had done. He released a statement on twitter following the accident:
“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. I’m fully cooperating with the police investigation to address how this tragedy occurred and I am in touch with her husband, offering my support to him and his family. My heart is broken for her husband, their son, and all who knew and loved Halyna.”
The investigation began almost immediately, with the western movie set in Santa Fe turning into a crime scene. One focus of the initial investigation was how the live round got into the gun in the first place, leading to the lethal accident. On any other film set, “the safety protocols for using guns are well established and straightforward: Weapons must be tightly managed by licensed armorers, cast members should be trained in gun safety, and live ammunition should never be used” (1). Typically, real guns are used on movie sets, however no true live ammunition is used in these weapons. In a traditional firearm, a bullet consists of the shell casing packed with gunpowder, and a projectile sitting at one end of the shell facing outward. A primer sits at the back end of the shell to be struck by the firing pin of the firearm in question. When the firing pin strikes the primer, the gunpowder explodes towards the projectile, propelling it forward. This is what constitutes a “live” round or “live” ammunition.
On any movie set, as Larry Zanoff, an armorer who worked on Django Unchained, said, “The safety guidelines that we live by on television and movie sets prohibit the use of live ammunition on a set” (1). In place of live rounds, blank cartridges are used, swapping the projectile in a cartridge with a wad of paper and wax, allowing for safer operation of a firearm. I say safer as opposed to entirely safe as there is still an explosion and the blank still goes off as if it were a live round, and the blank projectile is still dangerous at close ranges. A minimum distance of twenty feet is recommended when firing a blank round, as anything within this range can prove lethal given proper circumstances.
The protocol barring live ammunition and the use of blanks in place of them should have been followed to the letter. However, broken protocol was not uncommon on the set of Rust, as six members of the camera crew walked off the set over poor working conditions mere hours before the shooting. Crew members had complained about grueling work days, exceeding 13 hours, and delayed paychecks. In addition, there were “at least two accidental gun discharges on the set on October 16th, days before the fatal shooting, according to three former members of the films’ crew” (2). A certain complacency must have been present on set in order for such an important safety protocol to be broken, allowing for this catastrophe to even occur.
Watch this video on news coverage of the incident:
No reports indicate charges being brought against Alec Baldwin, as it seems that he had no idea the weapon he was handed contained live ammunition. Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza explained that he “thinks the facts are clear. A weapon was handed to Mr. Baldwin. The weapon was functional, and fired a live round, killing Ms. Hutchins and injuring Mr. Souza” (3). There are conditions that can be met, however, that lead to criminal charges coming up against Alec Baldwin. If Alec Baldwin was ever negligent with the firearm, such as discharging the weapon from close range, despite its lack of live ammunition, he could be held accountable for the death in court. Those in the production crew are not being ruled out either, as lax protocol was taken by the assistant director who handed the seemingly “cold” gun to Baldwin, admitting he had not inspected the prop gun thoroughly. According to Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor, charges that could be brought up include “criminal negligence, which would be sufficient for a manslaughter prosecution” (3).
Anyone who knew the gun contained live ammunition, as well as the person(s) who loaded the firearm, may face charges should the investigation yield any evidence that live ammunition was knowingly loaded into the firearm. Regardless of how it happened, it is a tragic loss of life and traumatic experience for all involved.