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Firearms safety guidelines are clear and longstanding in Hollywood, where guns have been employed on the big screen since the silent film era: Live ammunition is never to be used nor brought onto any studio lot or stage. Blanks can kill. Treat all firearms as though they are loaded.
But following the tragedy on the New Mexico set of indie Western Rust, where star Alec Baldwin discharged a gun containing a live round that hit and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured writer-director Joel Souza, questions are swirling again about on-set gun safety and who could be at fault.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to veteran Hollywood munitions experts about on-set safety, including Bryan W. Carpenter, an armor and weapons master who has been working in the space for 30 years. The tactical trainer says there are fundamental safety rules you never breach when using guns for film and TV productions, guidelines that also translate to real life.
“Number one, always treat all weapons as if they are loaded — don’t treat them as props,” explains Carpenter, who has worked on such gun-heavy productions as Queen of the South, Power, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, NCIS: New Orleans and Cloak & Dagger in addition to serving for 11 years as a professional instructor training agencies and stunt performers in how to handle firearms. “Number two, never have your finger on the trigger or pull the trigger until you’re ready to discharge the weapon. Number three, never point the weapon at anything that can be harmed or injured. And number four, always be aware of what’s in front, behind and on all sides of what you’re aiming for.”
Carpenter believes that if Nos. 1 and 3 had been followed on the set of Rust, “no one would’ve gotten hurt.”
A search warrant affidavit, first reported by the Santa Fe Reporter, provides an early sketch of what may have occurred Thursday at Bonanza Creek Ranch outside Santa Fe. According to the document, the armorer had laid out three prop guns on a rolling cart, and the assistant director handed one of them to Baldwin, announcing that it was a “cold gun,” meaning it was believed to contain no live ammunition. But, according to the affidavit, the gun was loaded with live rounds, and when Baldwin pulled the trigger, Hutchins was struck and killed. Souza, who was standing behind the cinematographer, was wounded.
The munitions expert, Carpenter, who was not part of the Rust production, says pointing a weapon directly at the camera or at individuals is something one should never do. “You never aim a weapon directly at anyone, period.”
“If you need to point a weapon at the camera, the area must be locked off so that there is no one behind it. You never fire at or near the camera,” he adds. “Sometimes the shot may require it, in which case, the entire area must be cleared for safety precautions.”
On the set of Rust, the armorer was Hannah Gutierrez, according to The Associated Press. She has also been identified as Hannah Gutierrez-Reed and Hannah Reed, and her LinkedIn profile lists her base as Flagstaff, Arizona. She professionally identifies as a videographer but lists a recent gig as an armorer at the Yellowstone Film Ranch in Montana, from March to June of this year. Her duties included “loading firearms with appropriately sized blanks” and “ensuring gun safety on set along with instructing actors on how to use their guns.”
Her father is Thell Reed, a veteran armorer who has worked on such films as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, 3:10 to Yuma, Flags of Our Fathers, Miami Vice, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, L.A. Confidential, Blade and Tombstone. An attempt Friday to reach Gutierrez wasn’t successful.
Rust actor Jensen Ackles said he had worked closely with a female professional while prepping his scenes. A YouTube video — which was removed Friday after being widely shared — shows the actor at a Supernatural fan convention (Ackles starred for 15 seasons on the CW drama, which ended its run in November 2020) from the Oct. 15 weekend after spending two weeks shooting Rust.
After detailing how he got the part and sharing enthusiasm for starring in a Western, a lifelong dream, he said, “I’ve got a 6 a.m. call tomorrow to have a big shootout. They had me pick my gun, they were like, ‘All right, what gun would you like?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know?’ and the armorer was like, ‘Do you have gun experience?’ I was like, ‘A little.’ And she’s like, ‘OK, well, this is how you load it, this is how we check it and make sure it’s safe.’” He went on to say that the armorer told him she was going to fill the gun with blanks so he could shoot off a couple of rounds toward a nearby hill, noting that he did so easily.
A representative for Rust declined to address questions from The Hollywood Reporter pertaining to its on-set oversight of prop weaponry. Instead, a statement was provided, saying, “Though we were not made aware of any official complaints concerning weapon or prop safety on set, we will be conducting an internal review of our procedures while production is shut down.”
Gary Harper — a veteran industry armorer who has supplied weapons and consulted on productions for decades, from Rambo III and The Last Samurai to Flags of Our Fathers and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — says that direct-to-camera, close-quarters shots are frequently requested and can be performed safely. However, he prefers to include a shielding sheet of acrylic Plexiglass between the gun-wielding actor and whoever is behind the camera, as well as to dress the operator in a robe-like Kevlar garment, or at least eye protection. He also employs a brittle bullet. “On its way out, it’ll fragment into smaller pieces,” he says.
Carpenter notes that like any piece of human-made equipment, it is possible for guns to break and malfunction. “You have pressure being created in a weapon, and if a barrel breaks off or some other accident, that can be sent into a crowd or crew, and that’s not something you ever want to happen.”
Harper concurs, observing that improperly maintained and checked firearms can result in accidental discharge. “There have been times — you see it at re-enactments — when people don’t clean [their gun] from their last shooting,” he explains, “and they go, ‘Oops!’ and some live rounds jump out.”
Carpenter explains that there are several types of rounds used on TV and film productions. One type is blank cartridges, which are rounds that contain gunpowder but no projectile. Depending on what look the director wants, the rounds can contain one-quarter, one-half or the full amount of powder. Another type is dummy rounds, which look like real bullets and are used for shots in which the director wants to see a firearm up close — while being loaded, for instance.
“For all intents and purposes, dummy rounds look like a real round but commonly have BBs inside instead of gunpowder. All the powder has been taken out and cleaned. The BBs are used so you can hear the shaking and rattling,” says Carpenter. “As an armorer myself, I bring my own dummy rounds that I have secured from reputable sources and I have checked them multiple times before taking them to several on-set sources, including the director, AD, DP, so you can get double verification before we let those things go out on set and in the hands of actors.”
As for blanks, they can be dangerous despite not involving slugs. “People have a lot of misunderstandings about them,” says Harper. There’s still gunpowder involved, which produces the sought-after realism of recoil, noise and muzzle flash. Harper notes that some people, looking to save on cost, reload blanks and that the cartridges can break and become projectiles. “It’s still a ballistic weapon,” he stresses.
While working, Carpenter says he’s extra careful to never let anything leave his possession because there are many moving parts on sets.
Carpenter recalls recently being on set in Chicago for a scene that involved an actress chasing another character through a wooded space. The director wanted her to fire a gun in the direction of the camera to achieve a specific angle. To accomplish this, the entire area was locked off and a remote camera was used with no one anywhere in the vicinity.
“I had verified it was blanks, and we made sure the distance was correct. And still, you have the actor point it away from the camera even though it’s all protected,” he explains. “At the end of the day, it’s a piece of equipment made by humans and accidents do happen, but you mitigate that by following all safety protocols to avert disaster, like what happened [in New Mexico].”
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