A group of leading on-set armorers and weapons masters working within the motion picture industry are outraged over “the poor choices that were made” on the set of “Rust.”
On Oct. 21, Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza. Investigators in New Mexico, where the shooting occurred, said there was “some complacency” in how weapons were handled on the movie set.
Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said 500 rounds of ammunition – a mix of blanks, dummy rounds and suspected live rounds – were found while searching the set of the Western film. Souza, 48, who was standing behind Hutchins, 42, told investigators there should never be live rounds present near a scene.
“Foremost, we offer our condolences to the family and friends of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who tragically and needlessly lost her life on-set in New Mexico on October 21,” read a lengthy statement from the collection of armorers and weapons masters sent to Fox News.
“Industry records establish that there have been a total of three (3) firearm deaths on film sets since 1984,” the statement shared. “Of those three, two took place outside of California and with non-union or inexperienced crews. The last firearms death that took place on a studio/union film was Jon-Erik Hexum in 1984. From 1993 (the year of the Brandon Lee tragedy) to 2021 there were no firearms fatalities on any set in the United States or Canada. You will not find a related high-risk industry with a better safety record.”
According to the statement, the group attributes “this exceptional overall safety record” to the professionalism and skill level of on-set armorers and weapons masters with years of experience working on a set. However, it noted that overworked, under-trained, under-supported and under-payed crews working in the film industry are ongoing issues that need to be addressed, especially as the number of projects in production continues to increase.
“Our job is specifically intended to keep all actors and crew safe while providing the utmost realism and quality in film production,” the statement read. “These goals can and do work together under the skilled supervision of on-set armorers and weapons masters… Those of us who have taken on this responsibility make it a point of professional pride and honor to strictly follow established, tested and proven safety procedures.”
“These safety procedures were developed over time by skilled and experienced professionals, many of whom hold licenses and permits unique to the industry,” it shared. “These procedures should never be diminished or marginalized in the name of cost-cutting or budget limitations.”
Before the tragedy, problems were already plaguing the “Rust” production. Disputes began almost from the start in early October and culminated with seven crew members walking off several hours before Hutchins was killed. The crew members had expressed their discontent with matters that ranged from safety procedures to their housing accommodations, according to one of those who left.
At a rehearsal on the film set, the gun Baldwin, 63, used was one of three that an armorer had set on a cart outside the building, according to court records. An assistant director, Dave Halls, grabbed a prop gun and handed it to Baldwin, indicating incorrectly that the weapon didn’t carry live rounds by yelling “cold gun.”
The Los Angeles Times, citing two crew members it did not name, reported that five days before the shooting, Baldwin’s stunt double accidentally fired two live rounds after being told the gun didn’t have any ammunition.
A crew member who was alarmed by the misfires told a unit production manager in a text message, “We’ve now had 3 accidental discharges. This is super unsafe,” according to a copy of the message reviewed by the newspaper. The New York Times also reported that there were at least two earlier accidental gun discharges; it cited three former crew members.
One crew member said he never witnessed any formal orientation about weapons used on set, which normally would take place before filming begins. He also said only minimal COVID-19 precautions were taken even though crew and cast members often worked in small enclosed spaces on the ranch.
Hannah Gutierrez Reed, the film’s armorer, gave an interview in September to the “Voices of the West” podcast in which she said she had just finished her first movie in the role of head armorer, a project in Montana starring Nicolas Cage titled “The Old Way.” As for Halls, he was fired from a separate project in 2019 after a crew member on “Freedom’s Path” incurred an injury from a prop gun.
“The tragic loss of life, in this case, was likely the result of incompetence and inadequate use of professionals who serve as the gatekeepers of the film industry’s safety protocols and standards,” read the statement. “… We see that the incident was completely preventable and should not have occurred, given the longstanding and well-established safety regiment that we work under and implement every day in our industry. This incident was caused, in part, by producers who were unwilling to hire competent people following our long-established and tested firearms safety procedures. It is becoming increasingly clear that ‘Rust’ was a film where safety was not prioritized.”
In terms of eliminating real firearms from films altogether, the group called the response “misguided” because it doesn’t “reflect an understanding of the industry, creative expectations and decades spent refining safe on-screen simulated gunfire.”
“A car accident at an intersection does not require the elimination of vehicles, it requires adherence to the rules of the road and education and implementation of those rules among all participants,” they argued. “We call for renewed vigilance and commitment by film producers to recognize the importance of a safe work environment.”
“The tragedy in New Mexico is not an indictment of professional crews’ ability to safely perform their craft,” the statement read. “It is an indictment of the modern production culture, which for the last 30 years has pursued tax credits and found every way imaginable… to sacrifice crew health and safety in the name of budget consciousness.”
“… There was a time when we trusted and could depend on each other,” it continued. “Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of that. We hope this tragedy marks a turning point for our entire industry; a moment to refocus our collaborative efforts on crew safety by using time-honored procedures and the crews who understand them.”
District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said investigators cannot say yet whether it was negligence or by whom. She called it a complex case that will require more research and analysis.
The investigation is ongoing.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.