Tombstone, Arizona – -(Ammoland.com)- I’ve never been a fan of Alec Baldwin, though I’ve appreciated some of his work – the NPR, Schweddy Balls parody he did for Saturday Night Live was hilarious, for example.
Nonetheless, I think he’s overrated as an actor, as he seems to be one of those actors who plays himself. The public “self” he projects, not to mention his anti-gun and limousine-lefty political views, grate on me.
That said, I disagree with the decision by New Mexico prosecutors to charge him in the tragic death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.
Hutchins was shot and killed on the set of a movie called Rust when Baldwin fired one shot from a single-action .45 Colt revolver. After months of investigation and a good deal of foolish media posturing, prosecutors charged Baldwin and the production’s armorer, Hannah Guitierez-Reed, with two counts each of involuntary manslaughter. The charges are a little confusing, as they represent two different categories or classes of manslaughter, meaning that prosecutors are giving the jury the option of picking which one to apply to each defendant. If found guilty, each would only have one charge applied, with punishment being up to a maximum of 18 months in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
While the death of Hutchins was tragic and very avoidable, Baldwin’s reckless actions were patently not criminal.
A third person, Assistant Director David Halls, has already entered a guilty plea to a charge of Negligent Use of a Deadly Weapon, a misdemeanor, and received a 6-month suspended sentence. Hall is the person who retrieved the gun from the armorer’s cart and handed it to Baldwin, calling out “Cold Gun” as he did so, to indicate to Baldwin and the crew that the gun was not loaded with blanks – much less live rounds.
Many people have been blaming Baldwin for “breaking the rules,” and he certainly did, but we all know that there are exceptions, even to “the rules,” and films and theater productions often fall into those exceptions. The key in all of “the rules” exceptions is that layers of standardized precautions are put in place to ensure that the guns are safe in those situations. Gun handling exhibitions, as are commonly seen at the SHOT Show, for instance, typically involve guns that are mechanically disabled, checked by multiple people, and constantly re-checked throughout the demonstration.
Movie and theater productions have established their own systems for ensuring firearm safety, including the use of “simulated” and disabled firearms as much as possible, forbidding any live ammo from ever being anywhere on set, and tightly segregating and controlling blanks, which can produce a lethal blast close to the muzzle, and “dummy” rounds, which are typically loaded with no powder and a single BB that provides an audible rattle when shaken. Standard practice establishes a hierarchy of control for all weapons and ammunition, real or simulated, starting with the Armorer and going down through specifically designated Assistant Directors to the individual actors.
Through the years, movie makers have learned the hard way that actors and production crew are generally ignorant about the safe handling of firearms.
That and lackadaisical attitudes, as well as downright idiocy, abound. In response, they have made stricter and progressively more onerous layers of rules and restrictions in their ongoing attempts to keep ignorant people from doing stupid and dangerous things. Unfortunately, such procedures and precautions sometimes devolve into a perfunctory box-checking exercise to be run through as quickly as possible.
Movies, like most businesses, are time-sensitive. Time is money, as they say, and this is particularly true when you consider the massive costs and complexity of making movies. Any delay causes a ripple effect, leaving dozens, if not hundreds, of people being paid significant amounts of money to stand around and wait. There’s also the problem of the “Director’s Vision,” as they and their cinematographer try to capture images that comport with that “vision.” All of that combined on the set of Rust and culminated in the death of Hutchins.
Baldwin’s foolish decision to talk with reporters after the incident, including nonsensical claims that he “never pulled the trigger,” certainly didn’t help his case. Anyone with familiarity with single-actions knows that, unless the gun is seriously broken or heavily modified, the trigger must be pressed in order for the gun to fire. The FBI subsequently concluded that the gun involved was neither broken nor modified and that Baldwin had to have activated the trigger.
Anyone familiar with single-action guns also knows that it’s very easy and common to unconsciously depress the trigger during handling. Baldwins’ claims that he didn’t “pull” the trigger are probably true. He probably didn’t cock the hammer back and deliberately pressed the trigger to cause the hammer to fall. Instead, it’s likely that during the manipulation of the gun, his index finger locked around the trigger, holding it to the rear, and he intentionally or inadvertently allowed the hammer to slip out from under his thumb, causing it to fire.
Baldwin was practicing drawing the gun from a holster and pointing it at the camera to capture the angle and image that the director and Hutchins were asking for.
It’s apparent that Hutchins and the director wanted the camera to be looking right down the bore of the gun, or something close to that. That required Baldwin to point the gun directly at, or just to the side of the lens of the camera. They also apparently wanted to be able to see the noses of the bullets in the front of the cylinder as it rotated into firing position with the cocking of the hammer. This required that “dummy” rounds be in the gun.
This was all being done by a group of people with no real understanding of firearms, acting in trust of a system of safeguards that they didn’t take very seriously. This is obvious in the fact that they – the director and cinematographer – instructed Baldwin to point a functional firearm in their direction, and he complied.
Suggestions that Baldwin should have personally checked the gun to ensure that it wasn’t loaded with live rounds are just nonsense. In order to accomplish that, Baldwin would have needed to remove each round from the gun and verify that each was a “dummy” by shaking it next to his ear, to hear the BB rattling in the empty case before putting it back in the gun. This would have been a violation of safety protocols.
The Armorer, Hannah Gutierez-Reed, was the person ultimately responsible for ensuring that no live rounds were on the set or in the guns. When she loaded any gun with “dummy” rounds, her procedure should have been to shake each one to hear the BB rattle inside before placing it in the cylinder. She has filed a suit against the company that provided the “dummy” ammunition, but that suit is somewhat self-incriminating. For her to suggest that there might have been loaded rounds included in a box of “dummy” rounds is an admission that she didn’t check each round as she was loading the guns. If she did check each round while loading, then the only other possibility would be that someone intentionally replaced at least one “dummy” round with live ammo after Gutierez-Reed had loaded the gun and left it on the Armorer’s cart prior to the rehearsal. That would be murder.
Many in the gun world have gloated over the idea of Baldwin being hoisted on his own petard. They like the idea of a radical anti-gunner being bitten by a mistake involving a gun, but we need to get beyond schadenfreude, the unseemly pleasure at an enemy’s trouble, and look at the bigger picture.
- Do we really want strict liability to be applied to every instance of errant gun handling?
- Do we want people criminally prosecuted for the mistakes of others?
Perhaps, as an Executive Producer of the film, Alec Baldwin has some culpability for the personnel and procedures on the set, and some personal responsibility definitely falls on him regarding his participation in a scene that was not staged in a completely safe manner. There are lots of rumors and possible complications in the whole story, and perhaps we’ll learn something new as the case goes to trial, but in the immediate instance of the tragedy, Alec Baldwin was just an actor following directions.
About Jeff Knox:
Jeff Knox is a second-generation political activist and director of The Firearms Coalition. His father Neal Knox led many of the early gun rights battles for your right to keep and bear arms. Read Neal Knox – The Gun Rights War.
The Firearms Coalition is a loose-knit coalition of individual Second Amendment activists, clubs and civil rights organizations. Founded by Neal Knox in 1984, the organization provides support to grassroots activists in the form of education, analysis of current issues, and with a historical perspective of the gun rights movement. The Firearms Coalition has offices in Buckeye, Arizona, and Manassas, VA. Visit: www.FirearmsCoalition.org.