Can prop guns kill? Don't blame Alec Baldwin as set armorer responsible, say experts

The on-set armorer’s job is to check prop weapon before handing it over to actors, says Mike Tristano, a Hollywood armorer with 30 years experience


                            Can prop guns kill? Don't blame Alec Baldwin as set armorer responsible, say experts
Alec Baldwin on the sets of 'Rust' with an insert of Halyna Hutchins (Alec Baldwin/Halyna Hutchins/Instagram)

SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO: Actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun during the shooting of western ‘Rust’, and killed the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, officials said. The director of the movie Joel Souza was wounded, and authorities are investigating what happened. The incident took place on Thursday, October 21, in the desert on the southern outskirts of Santa Fe.

Santa Fe County Sheriff’s spokesman Juan Rios said detectives were investigating what type of projectile was discharged and how. No immediate charges were filed. Sheriff’s deputies responded about 2 pm to the movie set at the Bonanza Creek Ranch after 911 calls described a person being shot there, said Rios. Baldwin was seen Thursday outside the sheriff’s office in tears.

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How do prop guns kill people?

As per the Washington Post, prop guns fire blanks, gunpowder charges that produce a flash and a bang but not a hard projectile. But when the trigger is pulled, the paper or plastic wadding is ejected from the barrel with enough force that it can be lethal at close range.

In 1984, actor Jon-Erik Hexum died after shooting himself in the head with a prop gun blank while pretending to play Russian roulette with a .44 Magnum on the set of the television series ‘Cover Up.’ In 1993, actor Brandon Lee, the 28-year-old son of actor and martial artist Bruce Lee, died after actor Michael Massee shot him in the abdomen on the set of the film 'The Crow'. The prop gun was supposed to be loaded with blank and “dummy” rounds but was somehow loaded with a .44-caliber bullet, police said. The North Carolina district attorney said the shooting was caused by the crew’s negligence, not foul play.

As per the Daily Mail, a spokesman for the movie's production company has insisted that only blanks were used, but the sheriff's department is yet to confirm that. It's unclear if this was the first and only shot Baldwin fired, or if others had been fired safely. 

Brandon Lee was shooting for 'The Crow' when he died (IMDb)

As per the Mail, an object could have been stuck in the barrel of the prop gun that Baldwin was using. Known as a squib load, it happens when a cartridge isn't expended from the barrel because there aren't enough gases to push it out. In itself, it is not dangerous and can be fixed, but if a second round is fired behind the stuck round, it can cause the weapon to explode, or injure people in the near vicinity. 

As per Rhys Muldoon, an Australian actor who has worked extensively in film and TV, a blank misfiring close to the camera could have caused Thursday's accident. He said that material from the blank round could have struck Hutchins before causing part of the camera to hit Souza. Mike Tristano, a Hollywood armorer with 30 years' experience told the Mail that the ultimate responsibility for gun safety on movie sets rests with the armorer. 

“There should have been blanks in the gun, the on-set armorer’s job is to check that before handing the weapon over,” Tristan said. “They then make sure that the actor stands on a mark and never points the gun at the crew or cast... the editing makes it seem like they were pointing at their co-actor. That’s why everyone in the industry is very confused. How this happened is a total mystery at the moment.”

Tristan added that he has worked with Baldwin before, on the set of the 1998 film ‘Thick as Thieves’, calling him “very safe” and a “total professional”. He said, “I was surprised to hear it was him.”

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