No One Wants To Take Responsibility For Deadliest Mistakes In ‘Rust’ Shooting

Police evidence and a pile of lawsuits show repeated firearm mishandling. No one wants to admit it.

The first time armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed laid out the rules of firearm safety to the cast and crew of the “Rust” film set, she hammered home a key point.

“I told people these are regular weapons we have on set,” Gutierrez-Reed said in a recorded interview with police. “Don’t stand in front of them. Don’t point them at anybody. If it’s pointing in that direction, don’t stand in front of it.”

A few days later, on Oct. 21, director of photography Halyna Hutchins and director Joel Souza stood in front of actor Alec Baldwin as he pointed a .45 Colt revolver at them and asked if he should cock the hammer. Gutierrez-Reed was not present. Baldwin fired the revolver, striking Hutchins in the chest, killing her. The same bullet wounded Souza in the right shoulder.

The setting of the "Rust" film was the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Last October, a cinematographer was killed when a prop gun on the set fired a live bullet.
The setting of the "Rust" film was the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Last October, a cinematographer was killed when a prop gun on the set fired a live bullet.
Jae C. Hong via Associated Press

In the six months since, one question has lingered: How did a live round enter the gun in Baldwin’s hand? A trove of police interview recordings, several hours of body- and dash-camera videos, and hundreds of pages of incident reports and crime scene photos released last month don’t offer a complete answer.

The files, released over the objections of the Hutchins family, have since quietly been taken offline. Neither the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office nor the Hutchins’ family attorney would say why.

But the evidence, along with a pile of lawsuits filed over the shooting, highlights key safety lapses and lackadaisical gun handling that played a key role in making that live round a fatal mistake.

The armorer did not appear to check her ammunition supply thoroughly. The production crew chose to give Baldwin a real gun to plan a camera shot instead of the non-firing plastic or rubber imitations often used for rehearsals. And they let Baldwin point a gun directly at two people without an armorer present to oversee his actions.

The investigation leaves no doubt that the revolver Baldwin held contained at least one live cartridge. Police ultimately identified a total of seven live cartridges on the set, according to a lawsuit filed by Gutierrez-Reed against one of the film’s ammunition suppliers, Seth Kenney. No one noticed the live cartridges mixed among the dummy rounds until after the shooting.

That lapse is unheard of in the film industry, where firearm accidents are rare and don’t typically involve real ammunition. Brandon Lee died on the set of “The Crow” when a blank pushed a projectile through an obstructed barrel ― not a live round. Jon-Erik Hexum died in 1984 after shooting a blank into his right temple, which exploded with enough force for the wadding to puncture his skull.

But even a live round would not necessarily have resulted in Hutchins’ death and Souza’s injury if the crew and actors had followed the industry’s firearm safety precautions.

In the wider world, gun safety generally depends on a handful of simple rules. Always check if the gun is loaded. Know your target and what lies behind it. Keep your finger out of the trigger guard before you plan to shoot. And, most important, don’t point the barrel at anyone or anything you don’t plan to destroy.

Purposeful redundancy means negligently firing a lethal round requires breaking more than one rule simultaneously, starting with the most important one. Keeping the barrel pointed toward the ground, for example, kept “Rust” prop master Sarah Zachry from hurting anyone when she unintentionally shot off a blank days before the fatal shooting, according to police records.

These rules become fuzzier in the film industry, where actors point guns at each other as a matter of course.

That doesn’t mean they don’t apply at all. Many shots that appear aimed directly from one actor to the other are offset by a couple of feet, according to several armorers interviewed by HuffPost. When actors must take aim directly at another person, an armorer or prop master with weapon knowledge usually directs their movements.

“Never point a firearm at anyone including yourself,” the Actors Equity Association’s list of firearm safety tips reads. “Always cheat the shot by aiming to the right or left of the target character. If asked to point and shoot directly at a living target, consult with the property master or armorer for the prescribed safety procedures.”

Baldwin, who has handled guns in films for decades and has received shooting instruction, showed detailed understanding in police interviews of how guns work, the different types of dummy rounds and blanks used on film sets, along with the basics of safe handling.

Baldwin’s lawyer, Luke Nikas, disputed that his client needed to follow firearm safety standards ― a job that falls to the armorer and the production company that hired her. (Baldwin, also a producer of “Rust,” is not an owner of Rust Production Co.)

“We’re not talking about target practice at a range,” Nikas told HuffPost. “What we’re talking about is a movie set. He was pointing the gun exactly where he was told so the camera could capture a close-up of it. There is no reasonable expectation that there would be live ammunition on the set. Period. Full stop.”

But Baldwin also described practices on the “Rust” set that flew in the face of those standards. He thought the gun he handled the day of the shooting was empty, though it wasn’t. He pointed a firearm directly at people without an armorer present, despite being told not to. Gutierrez-Reed told police that Baldwin appeared distracted by his phone during safety briefings.

“We’ve done this for two weeks and we did it the right way, every day, every day,” Baldwin told police. “You’re on set. You rehearse. They bring you what’s called a ‘cold gun.’ They always hand you a cold gun with nothing to rehearse.”

In fact, the gun Baldwin held contained what the armorer told police she thought were six “dummy” rounds ― ammunition that contains no primer, making it incapable of exploding and firing a projectile. They are easy to identify: some have holes drilled in the casing while others rattle when you shake them.

Baldwin was practicing a cross-draw of the revolver when he fired the shot, according to initial news reports. But according to Nikas, Baldwin and his colleagues were actually staging how to set up a camera angle for an upcoming scene. He pulled the revolver up slowly toward the camera and eventually cocked the hammer, following the script and instructions from Hutchins, according to Baldwin’s arbitration demand.

Brian Panish, an attorney for the family of the late cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, speaks next to a portrait of Hutchins at a Feb. 15 news conference in Los Angeles. Hutchins' family is suing Alec Baldwin and the "Rust" producers for wrongful death.
Brian Panish, an attorney for the family of the late cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, speaks next to a portrait of Hutchins at a Feb. 15 news conference in Los Angeles. Hutchins' family is suing Alec Baldwin and the "Rust" producers for wrongful death.
Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

Actors typically use unloaded or imitation guns for rehearsal, according to several armorers interviewed by HuffPost. The Hutchins family’s wrongful death lawsuit argues that it was unnecessary for Baldwin to hold a real revolver, “let alone a revolver loaded with any ammunition at all,” just to confirm positioning before filming.

Dummy rounds keep revolvers from looking empty, which is unnecessary during rehearsals. Gutierrez-Reed’s lawyer Jason Bowles says she “dummied up” the gun for a scene rehearsal at the request of the producers. Dummy rounds make a gun appear loaded.

Gutierrez-Reed told police she did not have specific protocols for demonstrating whether a revolver was unloaded, loaded with dummies or loaded with blanks. Sometimes she let the actors pull the hammer to half-cock and spin the cylinder to check. Other times she did it herself in front of them ― the most common industry standard. Other times actors simply took her word.

Armorers interviewed by HuffPost ― who declined to speak on the record about the shooting, citing liability concerns in an incident that has spurred several lawsuits ― said they follow more stringent protocols.

Two armorers said that they routinely fire every dummy round loaded into a revolver into the ground in the presence of the actor who will hold it, the assistant director or both to prove that the gun’s rounds are harmless. Some perform the same check up to four times before handing the gun off to the actor who will use it.

Had the crew on “Rust” performed such a check, the live round would have flown into the ground, causing little more than a scare.

Baldwin told police he was among those who relied on the armorer’s word.

“She would show me the gun, or she’d say ‘cold gun, cold gun,’” Baldwin said in a police interview. “And she’d say, ‘Do you want to check?’ And I didn’t want to insult her. We never had a problem. I’d say, ‘I’m good.’”

Armorers themselves usually provide direction on how to handle firearms and position actors on set. They share the unique ability with the director to halt filming when they see something unsafe.

But after handing off the revolver to assistant director David Halls, the man who later handed it to Baldwin, calling it a “cold gun,” Gutierrez-Reed walked out of the chapel where the crew was filming and was outside when the shot rang out.

Several armorers said they would sooner walk off a set than let a gun in their charge out of their sight.

But the 25-year-old armorer lacked experience and struggled to divide her time as a prop assistant. The added responsibility was heaped on her after she arrived on the set of the low-budget film in the midst of a union dispute ― several crew members had quit the morning of the shooting. The production company’s COVID-19 protocols also limited who could stay inside while filming.

Bowles, Gutierrez-Reed’s lawyer, wrote in an email to HuffPost that she left the chapel to fulfill prop duties the production crew had saddled her with.

Had she been there, she might have guided the rehearsal differently.

“Hannah would never have let Baldwin point the weapon at Halyna, as part of standard safe gun practices,” Bowles wrote in her lawsuit. “Apparently, no one inside the Church stopped Baldwin from doing so, including Halls.”

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