Safety standards developed by film studios and entertainment industry labor unions are what’s protecting movie sets from potentially deadly accidents, like Alec Baldwin’s shooting on the set of “Rust.”
Although the industry standard across the board seems to be to treat weapons — even those loaded with blanks — as lethal, shootings and deaths have nevertheless happened, the most recent being the death of Halyna Hutchins. She was killed when a gun held by Baldwin discharged on the set of “Rust” and struck her in the chest and wounded director Joel Souza.
An investigation into the incident is ongoing, and authorities are primarily focused on how live ammunition not only made its way to the set but into the gun at all. Still, despite some industry reforms following previous tragedies, the federal workplace safety agency in the U.S. is silent on the issue of on-set gun safety. And some of the preferred states for film and TV production take a largely hands-off approach in favor of letting the industry regulate itself.
Georgia and Louisiana, where the film industry has expanded rapidly, regulate pyrotechnics on movie sets but have no specific rules around gun use. In Louisiana, the film industry was credited with creating more than 9.600 jobs last year and generating nearly $800 million for local businesses.
“We don’t have anything to do with firearms. We only regulate the special effects explosion-type stuff,” Capt. Nick Manale, a state police spokesperson in Louisiana told The Associated Press. “I’m not sure who does that or if anybody does.”
New Mexico has no specific safety laws for the film industry. Much of the legislative debate over the industry, as in other states, has focused on tax credits and incentives to lure the lucrative entertainment business, not what happens on sets.
In addition to attracting some large film productions, the state is home to major production hubs for Netflix and NBCUniversal. It had a record $623 million in direct spending on productions between July 2020 through June of this year.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat and an ardent film industry supporter, touted the industry’s pandemic precautions over the summer, saying it had put safety first and cleared the way for work to resume.
Workplace safety is paramount in every industry in New Mexico, including film and television, the governor’s spokeswoman, Nora Meyers Sackett, said Friday.
“State and federal workplace safety regulations apply to the industry just as they do to all other workplaces, and the state Occupational Health and Safety Bureau is investigating,” Sackett said of the tragedy that unfolded on a movie ranch near Santa Fe. “This is an ongoing investigation, and we’re awaiting additional facts in order to understand how something so terrible and heartbreaking could have happened.”
New Mexico workplace safety officials confirmed they would be looking at whether the crew followed industry standards. The agency does not routinely conduct safety inspections of sets and studios unless they receive complaints.
Instead of regulating firearm use on film and TV sets, some states leave it to the industry to follow its own guidelines. Those recommendations, issued by the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee, call for limited use of live ammunition and detailed requirements for the handling and use of firearms of all types. Safety meetings are to be held, actors are to keep their fingers off the triggers until they’re ready to shoot and guns should never be unattended, the guidelines state.
IndieWire previously reported that a nonprofit organization called Contact Services is responsible for ensuring union crew members on sets practice proper safety guidelines. According to its website, Contact Services is dedicated to carrying out “the required provisions of the collective bargaining agreements between the film and television industry’s West Coast Studio Local Unions and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. It offers 35 safety education courses, including “Firearm Safety for the Entertainment Industry,” a 90-minute video with an accompanying test. One of the first rules it lays out is that live rounds should not be used on a set except under very specific circumstances.
While it’s unclear if the production of “Rust” was subject to these guidelines specifically, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s department noted that live rounds were indeed found on set, and the bullet that killed Hutchins and wounded Souza was indeed live.
Speaking in an interview with the “Today” show, Sheriff Adan Mendoza said that the investigation is now focused on the live rounds.
Without specific state or federal regulations, it’s primarily up to the people working in productions to ensure guns are used safely. Brook Yeaton, vice president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union that represents workers in Louisiana and parts of Mississippi and Alabama, said his approach is to act like all weapons are real and to never allow live rounds on a set.
“They shouldn’t be in the truck. They shouldn’t be in the same car,” Yeaton told The Associated Press. “You really have to make sure your inventory is totally separate from the real world and everything you bring on set is safe.”
In one of the world’s premier film centers, New York City, productions are required to adhere to a code of conduct that spells out rules for parking, notifying neighbors and other details, including specifying that the sound of gunshots should not ring outdoors between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m. For use of a weapon or prop firearm, the city also requires authorization from the police department and an officer to be on set.
The website of the Texas Film Commission states that productions using prop weapons — which can be replicas or real guns that fire blanks rather than live ammunition — must have safety policies, expert weapon handlers and proof of insurance.
California, still the capital of the film industry, requires an entertainment firearms permit, though it’s not clear how permit requirements are enforced.
New Mexico state lawmaker Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an Albuquerque lawyer and champion of his state’s film incentives, questioned whether any safety legislation could have prevented the fatal shooting on the set of “Rust.”
“How can you disincentivize an involuntary act?” he asked.
Maestas said production companies might think about using post-production effects to mimic the sights and sounds they now rely on prop guns to create.
“That’s the only way to really ensure this never happens again,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.