In October 2021, cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was tragically killed in a shooting incident on the set of Rust, a Western filming in New Mexico starring Alec Baldwin. The chain of events was horrific, a bounty of cut corners and still unanswered questions about how live rounds ended up on a film set, but Alec Baldwin was using the gun loaded with that live round, and now he, and set armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed, will be charged with involuntary manslaughter in the state of New Mexico. The charges are being augmented with a “firearm enhancement” which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. Lawyers for both Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed have stated they intend to fight these charges in court.
First assistant director David Halls, who gave Baldwin the gun on set that day, will plead guilty to a charge of “negligent use of a deadly weapon” and receive six months’ probation, but no jail time. Others involved in handling weapons on set, such as prop master Sarah Zachry—who shot herself in the foot with a blank, among the many apparent safety incidents on set—and weapons supplier Seth Kenney, are not being charged with anything.
While serious questions remain to this day—primarily how in the hell did live rounds get on set in the first place—I am not really surprised charges will be filed. Rust less resembles The Crow, on which Brandon Lee died in a shooting incident, than it does Midnight Rider, the 2014 production that resulted in the on-set death of Sarah Jones, a camera operator who was struck by a train during filming. A lot of people are asking why Baldwin and Gutierrez Reed are facing criminal charges, when no one was ever charged with Lee’s death on The Crow, but Midnight Rider changed the parameters. That incident resulted in director Randall Miller serving a year in jail for, you guessed it, involuntary manslaughter (and criminal trespass, as they did not have permits to film on an active train trestle). Executive producer Jay Sedrish and first assistant director Hillary Schwartz both plead guilty to the same charges and received ten years’ probation each in their plea bargains. It seems likely the prosecutors in Santa Fe are following the precedent set by Midnight Rider.
However, SAG-AFTRA is weighing in, calling the prosecutor’s argument “wrong and uninformed”, and actor Michael Cerveris has already pointed out the union should provide a contract out for actors who don’t want to handle weapons on set, if they can be deemed liable for any accident that might occur.
If actors are going to be held criminally liable for trusting a prop master or AD, @sagaftra and @ActorsEquity need to immediately issue new guidelines giving actors the right to refuse handling any functioning weapon without losing a job.— Michael Cerveris (@cerveris) January 19, 2023
It’s not unreasonable. Right now, actors aren’t really part of the safety chain for weapons on set. There is (supposed to be) a whole chain of custody in place from suppliers to armorers to props to assistant directors who handle, check, and re-check weapons before they get to actors. The assumption, presently, is that actors aren’t part of that chain of custody, that by the time a gun reaches the actor, it is just another prop. If that changes as a result of Rust, yeah, actors should have a protected right to refuse handling a weapon on set.
Brandon Lee’s death introduced a lot of the protocol used today on sets regarding gun safety. Halyna Hutchins’ death will undoubtedly introduce even stricter protocols—a California state senator is once again trying to get a new safety bill through the statehouse—if not the abandonment of real guns altogether (many filmmakers have already stated an intent to switch to Airsoft guns, replicas that shoot plastic pellets). While some people will undoubtedly get all “mah guns!” about it, film is fantasy, and the pursuit of reality in the name of fantasy can be self-defeating. On screen, you cannot tell the difference between an Airsoft gun and a real gun. There is literally no reason for anything like this to happen again.
Live long and gossip,
PS: Rust was supposed to resume filming this month. Absolutely cursed.