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  • Writer's pictureCarter Ferguson

THE "RUST" TRAGEDY: A Sobering Reminder About On-Set Safety.

Cover Image - On set safety

Tomorrow will mark two years to the day since the accident on the set of Rust and I feel I should address what happened that day.


Out of respect for those involved in this tragedy, I have not posted any of the widely distributed images taken after the shooting of those who were hurt, but I have provided a sample of the police body cam footage from that day which was released by Sky News. This footage also shows a sample of what was being filmed prior to the incident. This is included as an aid to understanding exactly what happened.


The Incident


On October 21, 2021, while filming at the Bonanza Creek Ranch in New Mexico, a prop firearm (a vintage single-action Colt .45 revolver) held by actor Alec Baldwin discharged during a rehearsal, striking and fatally injuring cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza.


This tragic event underscores the tremendous responsibility industry professionals hold. As we continue to mourn the loss of a talented cinematographer and reflect on the injuries sustained by the director, we must as an industry pledge to ensure that such a grievous error is never repeated.

"During the initial investigation, it was determined that actor/producer Alec Baldwin was handed a loaded weapon by an assistant director who indicated that it was 'cold,' meaning it did not have any live rounds." Santa Fe Sheriff Adan Mendoza
Alec Baldwin - Rust
Speaking about the moments before the gun went off, Baldwin said: "I cock the gun. I go, 'Can you see that? Can you see that? Can you see that?' And then I let go of the hammer of the gun, and the gun goes off."

There were many rumors at the time, which I later determined to be false but two years on, investigations have revealed several lapses in protocols. The investigation and associated legal matters are still ongoing but what is clear is that the firearm, allegedly handed over by an assistant director to actor Alec Baldwin, was declared “cold,” meaning it was safe and not loaded with live ammunition. However, the gun contained a live round.


It appears that the gun was handed over by the 1st AD, who would never normally handle a firearm at all, and I must note here that he denies this, and that the armorer, who should have been on set, was outside and out of view of the weapon when the incident happened.

"There was a major lack of safety meetings on this set. I was there for three weeks, and there was not one." An unnamed source (Attribution: Deadline)

It should be noted that concerns about safety on the set of Rust had already been raised and it's been reported widely that several crew members walked off-set prior to the accident, citing safety concerns and dissatisfaction with the working conditions. This highlights the importance of addressing grievances promptly and ensuring all safety measures are airtight.


Prop Guns


In my experience, the prop guns used in films come in several categories:

  1. Airsoft Replicas: Plastic pellet-firing replicas of real firearms powered by gas, spring, or electric mechanisms. These are often rigged not to operate and at no time are the bb's they are designed to fire, allowed on set. When rigged not to fire, perhaps with glued-in parts, these airsoft replicas become #3 on this list.

  2. Blank-Firing Replicas: Designed only to fire blanks. Never functional as real firearms. In the UK blank-firing prop guns cannot produce a flame from the muzzle of the weapon. The flame from the blank is instead redirected through the top, sides, or bottom of the prop.

  3. Non-Firing Replicas: Full-size, non-functional firearm models. Cannot be modified to fire.

  4. Rubber/Foam Props: Lightweight, soft material representations of firearms for safe action scenes.

  5. *** Real Guns: Genuine firearms loaded with blanks, or spent non-firing rounds known as "DAGS".

*** This is the sort of weapon used during the accident. Specifically a vintage single-action Colt .45 revolver.


"DAG" often refers to a "Deactivated Gun" or "Drill Purpose Gun" in some contexts, but more often in my experience, the term refers to a deactivated or safe round or bullet.


Ammunition


In the realm of prop guns and film production, there are several types of ammunition or gun states to be aware of:

  1. Live Round: Contains a primer, powder, and a bullet. It is capable of causing harm or death and it should never be near a film set.

  2. Blank: Contains a primer and powder but no bullet. When fired, it makes a loud noise and produces a muzzle flash but doesn't shoot a projectile. However, blanks can still be dangerous at close range due to the force of the expelled gas and potential wadding or casing fragments.

  3. Dummy or Inert Round: Looks like a real bullet but doesn't have a primer or powder. It's often used for close-ups where the audience needs to see bullets in a gun's chamber but where there's no intention of firing. They cannot be fired and are safe for handling. NB Typically a round of this type will have a ball bearing inside of it, so that if shaken it is obvious that it is a dummy round.

  4. Deactivated or Drill Gun Round (DAG): As previously mentioned, this is a round that has been permanently altered so it can't fire. It's purely for show or practice drills. It will perhaps be fluted, already fired, or have some other obvious indication that it is safe.

It's crucial for film productions to understand these distinctions and ensure that proper safety protocols are followed. Mistakes or misunderstandings about the nature of a prop gun or the type of ammunition loaded can have tragic consequences.


The Armorer


The armorer is responsible for ensuring the safety and proper use of firearms during filming.


On-set protocols that an armorer might typically define before any firearm is used would be as follows:

  1. Safety Briefings: Before any scene involving firearms, the armorer conducts a safety briefing with all cast and crew. This includes explaining the type of firearm being used, its capabilities, and any risks associated.

  2. Treat Every Gun as Loaded: Regardless of whether a gun is loaded with blanks, dummies, or is entirely non-functional, it should always be treated as if it's loaded with live ammunition.

  3. Clear Chain of Custody: Only the armorer should handle and distribute firearms on set. Once a scene is completed, the firearm should be immediately returned to the armorer.

  4. Physical Inspection: Before handing over a firearm to an actor or crew member, the armorer should physically and visually inspect it to ensure it's in the desired condition (loaded with blanks, dummies, or empty).

  5. No Live Ammunition: Live ammunition should never be present on a film set. All rounds should be accounted for and any ammunition used for off-set purposes (like target practice) should be stored separately and securely.

  6. Controlled Environment: During scenes involving firearms, only essential personnel should be present. This minimizes the risk to bystanders.

  7. Barrel Inspection: After each take or shot, the armorer should inspect the barrel of the gun to ensure no obstructions or residues are present that could cause a misfire or accident on the subsequent shot.

  8. Safety Gear: Depending on the type of scene, actors and crew might be required to wear safety gear such as eye protection or earplugs.

  9. Direction of Fire: Actors should be clearly directed on where to aim, ensuring they don't point the firearm at anyone unless required by the scene, and even then, safety measures should be in place.

  10. Emergency Protocols: Everyone on set should be aware of emergency protocols in case of an accident. This includes knowing the location of first aid kits, having medical personnel on standby, and understanding evacuation procedures.

  11. Continuous Training: The armorer should continually update their knowledge and provide training sessions for actors and crew to ensure everyone understands firearm safety and protocols.

  12. Record Keeping: Maintain a detailed log of all firearms, their conditions, and their usage. This helps in ensuring accountability and tracking in case of discrepancies.

But to my knowledge, there isn't one definitive set of procedures and protocols. Perhaps the closest to a list of suggested rules that I am aware of is that published by the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee.


Its advice includes:

  • Blanks can kill. Treat all firearms as though they are loaded

  • Refrain from pointing a firearm at yourself or anyone else

  • Never place your finger on the trigger unless you're ready to shoot

  • Anyone involved in using a firearm must be thoroughly briefed at an on-set safety meeting

  • Only a qualified person should load a firearm

  • Protective shields as well as eye and hearing protection should be used by anyone in close proximity or the line of fire

  • Any actor who is required to stand near the line of fire should be allowed to witness the loading of the firearms


Ensuring protocols are in place and strictly followed is crucial for the safety of everyone involved. The role of an armorer is not just about providing firearms but ensuring they are used safely and responsibly.


And that brings me back to the set of Rust on October 21, 2021.

"Director Joel Souza was looking over the shoulder of [Halyna Hutchins] toward Baldwin. Souza heard what sounded like a whip and then loud pop." Affidavit from the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office

How could a live round find its way into a prop gun on a professional film set?

“It was unfathomable that there could ever be a live round of ammunition on a film set,” Dave Halls 1st AD

In the world of film and television firearms usage that I know, on a professional set, I honestly can't see how this would ever happen. We have clear protocols set out by the armorer that exist to ensure it can't happen.


With that said, and while the full investigation into the "Rust" incident is still in process, several theories and findings provide insight:

  1. Overlapping Usage: It's been reported that some crew members used the prop guns for live ammo target practice away from the set. If true, a grave oversight could have led to the mix-up between live and dummy rounds.

  2. Lack of Dedicated Armorer: A dedicated armorer, trained in handling and safety-checking firearms, is paramount. They ensure that only safe, checked weapons reach the hands of actors. A potential lapse or oversight in this area may have been a contributing factor.

  3. Chain of Custody: Firearms should always have a clear chain of custody on set. In the "Rust" case, the gun handed to Alec Baldwin was allegedly declared "cold" by an assistant director, not the film's armorer. This break in protocol indicates a potential lapse in communication and checks.

  4. Physical Check: Proper protocol dictates that actors, too, are visually and physically shown that a firearm is safe when handed to them. It's unclear if such a check was done in this case.

  5. A malicious third party: This is hardly likely but has to be considered.

Alec Baldwin - Rust Accident - Seconds before.

Where does the responsibility lie?


Responsibility in situations such as this is complex and multifaceted. As investigations continue, various parties may bear different levels of accountability based on their roles and actions.


Here's a breakdown:


1. With the Producers:

  • Producer's Responsibility: As one of the producers, Baldwin holds a certain level of responsibility for the overall safety and working conditions of the set. Producers are generally responsible for hiring competent crew members, ensuring proper protocols are in place, and addressing any concerns raised by cast or crew.

  • Possible Oversights: If it's determined that there were lapses in safety protocols, cost-cutting at the expense of safety, or if crew concerns were overlooked, Baldwin and his fellow producers could bear some responsibility.

  • Corporate responsibility: I'm not sure about how things work in the US but in the UK, in the corporate world, there is a term that relates to this sort of thing - "corporate manslaughter". In that case, the company that produced the film would bear some responsibility.

The FBI's review came after a separate report by safety regulators found that management on set "knew that firearm safety procedures were not being followed", with the Rust film company fined a maximum $139,793 (£107,019) over the "avoidable loss of life".

2. With the *1st Assistant Director (1st AD) - Dave Halls:

  • Role: The 1st AD's main job is to coordinate various aspects of the filming process, ensuring scenes are shot efficiently. Handling weapons is not within their purview.

  • Mishandling: In the case of "Rust," the 1st AD reportedly handed the firearm to Baldwin and declared it "cold." which effectively means safe. It's a significant break from protocol for the 1st AD to handle firearms, as this responsibility lies with the armorer.

NB In my experience we would more generally refer to the weapon as "safe" and not "cold" so as to be entirely clear about what was going on.

Halls has come in for harsh criticism for two actions just prior to the shooting. First, according to the widely reported narrative, Halls took the gun from Gutierrez Reed and handed it to Baldwin. (First A.D.s typically do not touch firearms on set.) Second, he declared it a “cold gun,” meaning it did not carry an explosive charge. But in his deposition, Halls denied that he had done either of those things. Halls testified that he checked the gun with Gutierrez Reed — as was their typical practice — and then she was the one who handed it directly to Baldwin.

Halls worked on about 30 to 40 films over a 30-year career but has now retired as a 1st AD.

“I no longer desire to do that job” Halls testified.

3. With the Armorer - Hannah Gutierrez-Reed:

  • Primary Role: The armorer is responsible for all aspects of firearm safety on set. This includes ensuring guns are loaded correctly, maintaining them, and directly handing them to actors.

  • Location During the Incident: Reports suggest Gutierrez-Reed was not in the immediate vicinity when the gun was handed to Baldwin. She was reportedly outside the church set at a cart that held equipment.

  • Responsibility: If it's found that live ammunition was mixed with blanks or dummy rounds under her oversight, or if she allowed unauthorized personnel (like the 1st AD) to handle firearms without proper checks, her responsibility in the accident would be significant.

Gutierrez-Reed has told police she loaded the live round into Baldwin's revolver, mistaking it for a dummy round. She said she did not know how live rounds got onto the set. Gutierrez-Reed sued Seth Kenney, owner of prop supplier PDQ Arm & Prop in 2022, alleging he supplied live rounds to Rust and misrepresented them as dummy rounds. Kenney has denied supplying live rounds and has not been charged.

4. With Alec Baldwin as an Actor:

  • Standard Protocol: Actors rely on armorers and other crew members to ensure that props, including firearms, are safe. Typically, if an actor is told a gun is "cold" (safe), they would trust that information.

  • Actor's Due Diligence: However, actors are often trained, or at least advised, to visually and physically check a firearm when it's handed to them. If Baldwin did not perform such a check, some might argue he shares a small degree of responsibility, though this is debated.

"Someone put a live bullet in a gun, a bullet that wasn't even supposed to be on the property," Baldwin said. "Someone is ​responsible for what happened, and I can't say who that is, but I know it's not me."

For the record, I 100% agree. To blame the actor in this situation is wholly unfair. Sadly though, this looks to be the direction that current legal efforts are going in.


Oct 17 2023 (Reuters): New Mexico prosecutors on Tuesday said they intended to recharge actor Alec Baldwin with involuntary manslaughter for the fatal shooting of "Rust" cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in 2021. "Baldwin's case will be brought before a grand jury in mid-November", special prosecutor Kari Morrissey said. The move followed results of an independent forensic test that found Baldwin had to have pulled the trigger of a revolver he was rehearsing with for it to fire the live round that killed Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza.


It's essential to remember that as investigations continue, the full scope of responsibility may evolve. But from the information available, it's clear that multiple breaks from standard safety protocols occurred. The incident serves as a tragic reminder of the importance of strict adherence to safety procedures on film sets.

“I think it’s just a tragic series of mistakes that happen - It’s just like what they say about an airplane crash. It’s like it’s just not one thing, y’know. It’s a system failure.” Dave Halls 1st AD

Various theories and lines of inquiry have been pursued by the authorities but introducing a live round into a film set, especially into a firearm that would be used during a scene, represents a significant and dangerous breach of protocol.


5. With an unidentified Third Party:


While it's theoretically possible for a third party to have deliberately introduced a live round, it would be speculative to conclude this without concrete evidence. It's up to investigators to determine the source of the live ammunition, the chain of custody of the firearm, and any potential motives or opportunities for sabotage.

  1. Motivation: For a third party to deliberately introduce a live round, there would likely need to be some motivation or intent to cause harm or sabotage the production. With that said I refer you to Hanlon's Razor. Click the quote to hear my podcast on the topic.

  1. Access: Film sets, especially those involving dangerous props or stunts, typically have measures in place to restrict and monitor access to critical areas and equipment. A third party would need to have the means to bypass these measures. That third party could of course have been someone else working on the production.

  2. Existing Protocol Breakdowns: Given the reports of other safety concerns and procedural lapses on the set of "Rust," it's also possible that the presence of a live round was due to negligence or oversight rather than deliberate action.

  3. Oversight in Handling: It was reported that some crew members used the prop guns for live ammo target practice away from the set. If this is accurate, it could provide a potential avenue for a live round to have been mistakenly left in the firearm.

"We kind of know who didn't do their jobs here." Santa Fe Sheriff Adan Mendoza
Alec Baldwin - Rust. Police Bodycam footage screen grab.

The Blame Game


I've been working on this report for several days and I can tell you that there is a degree of contrasting testimony from those that were present. Principle amongst these contrasting statements are the testimonies of the armorer and the 1st AD. Needless to say in a situation such as this, no one wants to be held responsible for what happened but as we move forward as an industry the finite details of what played out must be understood.


Alec Baldwin's own testimony on how he handled the weapon is what's gotten him back into hot water, but the "did he - didn't he" (pull the trigger) discussion on that topic to me is just a sideshow. Whether he did or not, in my opinion, is not relevant as he was specifically told that the weapon he handled was safe and unloaded. The DA feels that she has evidence that Baldwin acted with criminal negligence in this situation but I state again that, in my opinion, I absolutely believe that as an actor at least he has no culpability.


It has been quite aggravating researching this report, as time after time I have read that Baldwin had no business pointing a gun and that he should never have had his finger on the trigger, but these statements are made by unthinking idiots. He was playing a character. He had a lot of things to think about at that moment, and he had been told that the gun was safe, depending on what I read on the matter by both the 1st AD and by the Armorer. That's why the armorer is there. It's the armorer's responsibility to control and monitor these weapons and to ensure the safety of the cast and crew when they are in use. It's the production's responsibility to hire someone experienced and capable in the job and to ensure that they have the resources they need, in terms of manpower and equipment, and that they are given the power to ensure safety, to set protocols and to say "no" when necessary.


I've read many comments from non-expert internet "know it alls" that opinioned that Baldwin should have checked the gun himself, but there are several reasons why this is not something that is done:

  1. Expertise: Armorers are trained professionals who specialize in handling firearms, both real and prop. They know what to look for, how to ensure a gun is safe, and how to maintain them. An actor, regardless of their experience with firearms in real life, may not have the same depth of knowledge about the specific prop weapons being used.

  2. Standard Practice: For continuity and safety, it's vital to have a consistent procedure. Having one person (the armorer) responsible for the firearms reduces the chances of oversight or error due to multiple hands and interpretations.

  3. Liability: If something goes wrong, the responsibility should fall on a designated professional rather than an actor. This delineation of roles helps clarify where the buck stops in terms of safety.

  4. Concentration on Performance: Actors have a lot to focus on, including lines, blocking, emotion, and interaction with other actors. Adding the responsibility of checking a firearm can be an unnecessary distraction from their primary role.

  5. Potential for Accidents: If actors unfamiliar with firearms tried to check them, there's a potential they might inadvertently make the gun unsafe or misjudge its status.

That said, any actor should feel they have the right to verify the safety of a prop gun if they wish. However, the primary responsibility lies with the designated armorer to ensure that every firearm used on set is safe.


Industry Reflection and Moving Forward


The "Rust" incident spurred an industry-wide re-evaluation of on-set safety protocols, particularly concerning firearms. Many have called for stricter measures, including enhanced training for crew members handling firearms and better communication channels to report and address safety concerns.


Preventing On-Set Gun Accidents - Lessons Learned


Here's what I believe we could learn from the Rust Incident to make sure something similar doesn't happen again.

  1. Supply different versions of the gun. In the scene they were filming, there was no need for a gun to fire. So, we should use different versions of the gun that look real but can't fire.

The "hero prop" if it is later fired is usually a real gun as it's often seen in close up, like the one Alec Baldwin had. It needs to look real for close-up shots but with a little additional effort and budget, we can make or acquire high-quality replicas that look real but can't fire. We should use these replicas when the gun doesn't need to fire in a scene.


Then we would only need to handle the real gun when it must fire blanks, and blanks are very easy to distinguish from real bullets, inert rounds, or dags. After this, we must simply, under the supervision of an armorer, follow set safety rules for using blanks as blanks can cause injuries too.


In my experience incidentally, armorers often already have a real gun, a nonfiring replica that can't fire, and a rubber or softy "stunt" gun. By always using fake guns when the gun doesn't need to fire, we can prevent accidents like this from happening again.


2. More Easily Identifiable Fake Rounds. Perhaps a simpler alternative to replica guns would be to make available more universally identifiable fake rounds or dags. Perhaps made out of lightweight plastic or resin. Solid copies that when handled cannot be mistaken for live rounds.


3. Define industry-wide and internationally recognized firearms protocols. I have already listed many of the common protocols above, but perhaps the aim should be to make these more widely available.


4. Having more than one armorer. It's arguable that this tragedy would have been less likely to have happened had the armorer stayed in the room. She stated that she left partly due to COVID protocols, but these protocols should never have overridden her primary duty to oversee the care and safety of the firearms. I really only raised this as I read that she went out to stand by a cart containing other weapons. If she had an assistant perhaps, that assistant could have stayed by the cart whilst she oversaw safety.


5. More stringent and lengthy training for armorers. It's taken me years to gain the confidence and experience necessary to be able to confidently speak up when a matter of safety is questionable in regard to the stunts I oversee and assume responsibility for and I have felt enormous pressure from certain 1st AD's or production personnel to bend on matters of safety. There is an argument to be made that this armorer simply didn't have the confidence or strength of character to stand up to the pressure imposed upon her.


This article I hope sheds some light on this tragedy. If you'd like to hear a little more from me on the topic, I have recorded this audio for further information and thoughts.


If you are interested in my further thoughts on this matter please listen to this short audio file. Thanks.


This article has partly been gleaned from research and partly from a conversation that I had with one of the crew who were on set that day, but who wish to remain anonymous. It's essential to keep in mind that the situation was both tragic and complex. The quotes provided may not encapsulate the entirety of what transpired that day.



RIP Halyna Hutchins

April 10, 1979 - October 21, 2021

RIP Halyna Hutchins  April 10, 1979 - October 21, 2021

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