Alec Baldwin fatally shot a cinematographer with a prop gun

A fatal mistake.
A fatal mistake.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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A tragic incident on a movie set in New Mexico left one person dead and one injured yesterday (Oct. 21).

Actor Alec Baldwin, 63, shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, 42, and director Joel Souza, 48, in an “accident…involving the misfire of a prop gun with blanks,” the producers of Rust said in a statement. Hutchins died after being airlifted to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. Souza is undergoing treatment at a local hospital in Santa Fe.

What we know so far

After the 911 call about the shooting came in just before 2pm local time, deputies were dispatched to the Bonanza Creek Ranch movie set.

Baldwin, best-known for his roles in the Mission Impossible movie franchise, TV show 30 Rock, and for playing Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, was seen “distraught and in tears” as he spoke on the phone outside the sheriff’s office headquarters, the Santa Fe New Mexican wrote.

He was questioned and subsequently released. No charges have been filed so far, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office said, but detectives are still investigating “how and what type of projectile was discharged.”

Rust‘s filming has been halted for an undetermined period of time, and the cast and crew is being provided with counseling services. Baldwin was not only the lead actor but also a co-producer on the movie about a 13-year-old boy on the run with his estranged grandfather after the death of his parents in 1880s Kansas.

Have prop guns killed people on film sets before?

The latest incident triggered memories of similar tragedies from a few decades ago.

In 1984, the actor Jon-Erik Hexum accidentally shot himself in the head and died when he was pretending to play Russian roulette during a TV scene. Actor Brandon Lee, the son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, was shot and accidentally killed during a scene on The Crow‘s movie set in 1993.

Lee’s sister, Shannon Lee, who runs a Twitter account to honor her late brother’s legacy, wrote, “Our hearts go out to the family of Halyna Hutchins and to Joel Souza and all involved in the incident on “Rust.” No one should ever be killed by a gun on a film set. Period 💔”

How can prop guns kill?

To begin with, prop guns aren’t always toy guns. Often, on a film set, the term usually applies to real guns that are used as props. They are supposed to lend a sense of authenticity in close-up shots, and also in how the actor handles the weapon.

However, they’re normally harmless since they’re loaded with “blanks,” meaning blank cartridges. A prop gun has the casing, the gunpowder, the primers—all the works except the actual projectile tip, or bullet. Instead, the tip is crimped or sealed with paper wadding or wax.

When a prop gun fires, you get the same bang, recoil, muzzle flash, and an ejected shell, as you do with a real gun. You just don’t have the deadly bullet. But several things can go wrong—and they have.

In Hexum’s case, for instance, the wadding used to hold the gunpowder in place shot out and the impact fractured his skull, sending bone fragments into his brain. He died six days later. In Lee’s case, a bullet that was lodged in the barrel of a gun weeks earlier was accidentally discharged along with a blank cartridge while filming.

While details of what happened on the Rust set are still unclear, Deadline, citing unnamed sources, reported that “a principal cast member cocked a gun during a rehearsal, unaware that there were live rounds in it.”