Out of Bounds

Safety Doesn’t Come Cheap

Although the film industry has safety procedures in place, short cuts leave crew members vulnerable to potentially lethal errors

By Rob Breeding

Most of the country has by now learned of the tragedy on the set of “Rust,” a low budget Western filming in New Mexico, when Alec Baldwin, the movie’s star, was rehearsing a scene requiring him to aim at the camera and fire. 

Unfortunately, the gun he used was loaded with live rounds. When Baldwin fired, a bullet struck cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in the torso, killing her. It then wounded director Joel Souza.

Moments before, an assistant director handed Baldwin a Colt revolver, announcing “cold gun” as he did. That’s movie set speak for an unloaded gun. 

In 2016 I wrote about a similar incident while working for the newspaper in Cody, Wyoming. There a performer fired a loaded gun during a popular tourist attraction, the Cody Gunfighters Show. Three people in the audience were wounded, though none seriously.

Safety procedures for the Gunfighters Show had either been compromised, or never existed. I learned similar incidents had occurred just about everywhere gunfight reenactments are performed. Without strict procedures and an armorer who rules the operation with a dictatorial obsession for firearms safety, someone eventually brings a loaded gun to a fake gunfight and shoots someone.

That’s what happen on the set of “Rust.” When the crew wasn’t working they enjoyed a little stress-relieving target practice, using the same gun Baldwin fired.

Increasing the danger even more was a crew walk off over financial and safety concerns the morning of the shooting. And both the armorer and the assistant director had been involved in gun accidents on previous productions.

In Cody, the gunfighter who shot those tourists was using an old-fashioned cap-and-ball revolver. These revolvers shoot lead balls, and are loaded much like a muzzleloading rifle: black powder is poured into the barrel. Then a lead ball is ram-rodded on top of the charge. 

It takes some time to load all six chambers in a revolver, so shooters often carry extra loaded cylinders. 

The gunfighter in Cody spent the early part of the day target practicing. He then arrived at the show late and hastily grabbed a cylinder loaded with lead balls. There was no armorer there to catch his mistake.

Fortunately, one safety rule remained in place. Since even blanks can be dangerous, the gunfighters routinely aimed at the ground, not other gunfighters. The lead balls that hit audience members were ricochets, and that slowed their velocity enough so the victims received superficial, rather than life-threatening wounds.

The shooter was well known to Cody law enforcement, with a rap sheet that included multiple felonies. This is why he owned only cap-and-ball revolvers. Even if newly manufactured, this type of gun is considered an antique weapon and is exempt from the federal law that prohibits felons from owning firearms.

When I looked through the shooter’s court history, I learned that less than a year earlier he had been convicted of threatening a man with a pair of antique cap-and-ball revolvers. The final document in his file, entered a few months before the gunfight shooting, was a petition to have his confiscated guns returned. Despite another felony, no law prevented him from owning those revolvers.

Cody had to shut down its gunfight for a year, then pony up the money to pay for an armorer who now inspects every weapon before it enters the restricted area of the reenactment. Cap-and-ball revolvers, which are more difficult to inspect, are no longer allowed.

The film industry has safety procedures like these in place. On a low-budget film like “Rust,” however, where corners were already being cut, crew well-being was treated as an expendable extravagance. Real gun safety can be expensive. 

What’s even more expensive is no safety at all. Just ask the family of Halyna Hutchins.