Since the beginning of American cinema, guns have dominated American films. John Wayne, Sly, Linda Hamilton, Keanurees, Linda Hamilton, and others have fired millions upon millions of false rounds of ammunition. But this penchant for onscreen violence has ended in real life tragedy several times throughout Hollywood history—and did so once again on Thursday, when the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed after the actor Alec Baldwin discharged a prop firearm during while filming the movie RustNew Mexico
The incident—which also seriously injured the film’s director Joel Souza—has led to renewed calls by many in the film industry to ban real guns on movie sets. Rian Johnson is one of many prominent directors. Paul FiegThey were also requested to be removed from Twitter.
“People say we should learn from this—but we learned this lesson a long time ago. People have been killed on set before with prop guns,” says Stephen Lighthill, the president of the American Society of Cinematographers and a former mentor of Hutchins. “It’s time for us to remove all guns from sets.”
An accident history on film sets
Some guns on film sets may be rubber reproductions. Others are actual guns, which are loaded or empty of blanks. Director and actor prefer real guns for their visceral authenticity, as well as the fact that they can eject or retract a cartridge. “We needed the reflections on the actor’s face to be real, her physical response to be real,” the director Christopher Gist and Sarah Mayberry wrote of filming with a real gun on their thriller Darklands
However, there are always blanks can still be dangerous—and especially at close range. The noise can be defeaning, and the wad that holds the gunpowder—which can be made of paper, plastic, felt or cotton—can be ejected with such force to be lethal in close range. “A blank is never a blank. Heat and light are going to come out of it,” Lighthill says.
Jon-Erik Hexum, an actor in 1984, accidentally shot himself with a.44 Magnum pistol filled with blanks from the set. Protect YourselfHe joked about it and held the gun up to his temple before pulling the trigger. The actor Brandon Lee (the son of Bruce Lee) was shot to death while filming in 1993. Crow A gun with blanks was actually a pistol, but the barrel had a bullet in it.
This Friday Lee’s sister Shannon wrote a message to Hutchins’ family on Twitter: “No one should ever be killed by a gun on a film set. Period.”
There are established procedures in place for film crews that work with real guns. team of people who have to sign off on them. Property masters obtain guns and make sure they’re properly stowed when not in use; armorers or “powder men” handle guns on set and give strict instructions to the cast and crew about their usage. For protection of people near the guns, Plexiglass sheets have been installed. Firing pins are frequently removed. Bullets should not be placed anywhere near the set point.
“Safety protocols when we have prop guns on set are rightfully excessive—you go over and over them,” the actress Minnie Driver wrote on Twitter.
“There is a line of responsibility to who hands the firearm to the actor and what checks are done,” says Bob Primes, a cinematographer and two-time Emmy winner. “I’ve had people open up the gun and show me what’s in the compartments and all that. We couldn’t do the things we do without that chain of responsibility—so something like that never should have happened. Somewhere along the line, someone got rushed.”
Lighthall even used more forceful language. “From my point of view, this wasn’t an accident—it was a crime,” he says. “This was an avoidable event. Somebody, or some group of people, did not do their job properly, allowing a situation to exist in which someone could be killed.”
On Friday morning, Indiewire reported that IATSE Local 44, the union that represents prop masters, sent an email to its members saying that the gun used to kill Hutchins contained “a live round,” and that the production’s propmaster was not a member of Local 44. A representative from Local 44 did not respond to a telephone call. A L.A. Times article stated that one crew member was missing. Rust said “there was a serious lack of safety meetings on this set.”
Resounding calls for reform
Hollywood’s top stars voted to ban guns on set Friday. “We should ban the use of blanks and simply do muzzle flashes in post to avoid any more tragedies,” Paul Feig wrote.Bandar Albuliwi is the director. He started Change.org to ban firearms from set. The petition has so far received more than 4,000 signatures.
The tensions around safety regulations on set have grown larger as a result of the shooting. This dispute has been at the heart of an ongoing battle between Hollywood media companies, IATSE (the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) and union IATSE. More than 50,000 IATSE members decided to strike earlier this month. They cited poor wages and unsafe work conditions, as well as insufficient rest times. (A strike was avoided when the two sides negotiated a new agreement last week.
“Across the board, this industry is filled with red flags for safety,” the film worker Paul Rodriguez told TIME earlier this month. “If you’re rigging grip or on electric, you could be 70, 80 feet in the air. Every day, there’s something where you could die.” In 2017, stuntwoman Joi Harris was killed on the Vancouver set of Deadpool 2 when she was ejected from her motorcycle, with government investigators later concluding that “the employer failed to complete important health and safety documentation” Two years later, the special effects coordinator Warren Appleby was killed in an accident while working on the TV series Titans.
Hutchins uploaded a photo of Hutchins’ cast and crew on Instagram just three days before. Rust—with Baldwin standing at the front holding a thumbs up sign—with the caption, “Standing in #IAsolidarity with our IATSE crew here in New Mexico on RUST.”
Lighthill is an IATSE member. He says the incident highlighted the importance of increased safety and more rest for crew members who work up to 14 hours a day. “All of us have a very personal stake in this. I think it’s time to sit down and say, ‘We’re not going to do this anymore. Actors have to be willing to change their schedules and say, ‘Okay, I’ll work a couple days longer so that you guys can work 10-hour days.’
“This is a highly dramatic incident in which a young woman was killed. But you don’t hear about all the fender benders and traffic accidents to people that fell asleep behind the wheel,” Lighthill says. “None of those things get publicized, but they’re happening all the time as a result of film production.”