A death on set has reignited debate about Hollywood’s penchant for firearms

A tragedy’s aftermath.
A tragedy’s aftermath.
Image: Reuters/Adria Malcolm
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Accidents involving firearms on US film sets are rare. Live ammunition is prohibited, and a prop master or licensed armorer is responsible for handling any weapons, training the actors who use them, and loading blanks to ensure that real bullets aren’t fired. An industry-wide safety bulletin advises those working in Hollywood to “treat all firearms as though they are loaded.”

But a tragedy on the set of a film starring actor Alec Baldwin in New Mexico has reignited debate over whether the use of real firearms is necessary for producers and directors to effectively tell their stories on screen. Yesterday (Oct. 21) Baldwin fired a prop gun on the set of Rust, a Western, and fatally wounded cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. Director Joel Souza was also wounded but survived, returning home from the hospital the following morning.

No charges have been filed in regard to the incident. A spokesperson for Baldwin described the incident as a misfire of a prop gun with blanks, which are used to imitate live ammunition. The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s spokesman said detectives were investigating what type of projectile was discharged from the gun, as well as how it happened.

Hollywood’s relationship with firearms

A number of US actors have been advocates for tighter gun control over the years, but there is evidence firearms are nevertheless proliferating onscreen. An analysis by the Hollywood Reporter found the number of gun models pictured in big box-office movies between 2010 and 2015 was 51% higher than a decade earlier. Another analysis by The Economist suggested toting firearms may help actors pull in more money.

Providing firearms to studios can be immensely profitable for companies like Independent Studio Services, which has a collection of 16,000 guns, most of which are real, that it rents out for filming use. Hollywood exposure can benefit gun manufacturers, too. In a 1999 report The Baltimore Sun noted that the Desert Eagle pistol, produced by Magnum Research, appeared in more than 40 movies including Rambo III, Red Heat, and even Austin Powers. The Desert Eagle retailed for $800 to $3,000 at the time, and Magnum reported annual sales of $8 million that year.

While there isn’t a lot of data indicating that guns onscreen fuel violence off-screen, in recent years Hollywood’s relationship with the firearms industry has come under closer scrutiny. As film critic Nicholas Barber argued in a review of The Quiet Place, which featured ample firearms, “nearly every American film involving weaponry might as well be an NRA [National Rifle Association] infomercial.”

Fatal shooting prompts calls for reform

Even though guns are highly visible in US films, their use is also strictly regulated, and as Washington Post entertainment writer Steven Zeitchik noted, a weapons master should have been responsible for ensuring the safety of firearms used in the production of Rust.

“Firearms are as safe as any other prop when used responsibly,” Dave Brown, a firearms safety expert who advises film and theater productions, said in an email to Quartz. “But they require the undivided attention of an experienced expert at all times.”

As details continue to emerge about the fatal shooting of Hutchins, some in the industry are calling for changes to Hollywood’s approach to gun props. The director and producer James Cullen Bressack, who had worked with Hutchins, said he’d only use replica airsoft and rubber guns, rather than real firearms, on his productions from now on. The writer Bandar Albuliwi started a petition on calling for an end to the use of real guns on set. CGI effects can be used to imitate the muzzle flash of blanks, and as the Canadian actor Elias Toufexis noted, it may be worth phasing out the use of real blanks all-together.

Joseph Sakran, a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins University and an advocate against gun violence, wrote on Twitter that he hoped the incident would reignite a discussion about the real-world impact of portraying gun violence in films. “Until then, NO ONE should ever be injured or killed in a production,” he added.