‘Rust’ Killing Forces Hollywood to Make Choices on Guns

Scott Reeder, the head of props on “Walker,” the TV revival about a gun-toting Texas Ranger, was planning for a scene in which a woman points a revolver at a captive when a new set of orders arrived: real guns would no longer be used in the production.

It was shortly after a cinematographer had been fatally shot on the set of the film “Rust” in New Mexico, when a gun Alec Baldwin had been rehearsing with fired a live bullet. The mood around guns on the “Walker” set had become tentative, and its producers had decided that they would stop using real firearms — which they, like many other productions, had selectively used for some close-ups and on a few occasions for blank fire — and would start relying fully on replica guns, including rubber guns and gas-powered guns such as Airsofts.

“I took any conventional weapon that we had off the prop truck and locked it in the safe,” Reeder recalled.

In the two years since the “Rust” shooting took the life of the cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, a divide has emerged in Hollywood over the use of real firearms on film and TV sets. Some productions, like “Walker,” have moved to ban them, leaning more heavily on special effects that replicate the flashes and bangs of gunfire. Many other productions continue to use them — maintaining that real guns look more convincing and elicit more authentic reactions from actors when used to fire blanks, and arguing that the “Rust” tragedy was an anomaly that could have been avoided if the production had followed standard safety protocols.

“Using blank fire enhances the story’s narrative; it provides realism and gives the actors something to respond to,” said John Navarro, a veteran armorer who oversaw blank fire in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” “And if used properly, it’s utterly safe.”

When “Rust” resumed filming this year after the killing of its cinematographer, its producers decided not to use any more real firearms. Andrew Wert, the film’s new armorer, locked up several replica rifles at the Yellowstone Film Ranch in Montana.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

There are some indications that the industry could be looking at broader changes. Some insurance companies are declining coverage to low-budget films that want to use operable guns on set, several entertainment insurance brokers said. The “Rust” shooting led to a series of potentially costly civil lawsuits against its producers, and prosecutors in New Mexico plan to convene a grand jury to see if Mr. Baldwin should be charged again.

And in Hollywood, a team of representatives from the unions and the major studios have been quietly working to revise and clarify the guidelines governing the use of firearms on sets, which are outlined in documents called Safety Bulletins No. 1 and No. 2, according to a person with knowledge of the process who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the revisions before they are made public. The guidelines were last revised 20 years ago.

Those guidelines will soon have even greater weight in California: Long considered voluntary, legislators sought to codify them for all productions in a law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in July. (An earlier proposal in 2021 would have banned operational firearms on sets, but after facing industry opposition the Legislature passed a law requiring productions that receive industry tax credits to employ safety advisers to review firearm usage, as well as to require firearms training for people handling guns on sets.)

The fatal “Rust” shooting offered a vivid reminder that many of the guns used on film sets are real. Sometimes they are loaded with inert dummy rounds that resemble real bullets but cannot be fired; that was supposed to be the case in the scene Mr. Baldwin was filming. Sometimes they are loaded with blanks — cartridges with gunpowder but no projectiles — that produce a loud bang and a flash when fired. But while live ammunition is almost always banned on sets, real guns can of course also be loaded with real bullets, which is what happened in 2021 on the day Ms. Hutchins was killed.

That is why, in the days after the “Rust” shooting, the Santa Fe County district attorney, Mary Carmack-Altwies, took issue with news reports that had described the weapon that killed Ms. Hutchins as a prop gun. “It was a legit gun,” she said.

Blank fire is far from extinct onscreen. In theaters now, moviegoers are watching the female lead of “Priscilla,” about the marriage of Priscilla and Elvis Presley, shoot blanks in a scene where her character is practicing with a pistol, and in “Napoleon,” about the 19th-century French emperor, actors fire blanks out of period-style muskets.

But since “Rust,” many armorers, who are responsible for firearms safety on sets, have seen opportunities dwindle, several said in interviews. And demand has increased for alternatives to real guns. Steven Leek, the co-director of an armory in Britain that specializes in gas-powered guns, said that he was getting more requests for them — though there had been a growing interest before “Rust” as well — and that they were used in “Golda,” the recent Helen Mirren film about Golda Meir and the Yom Kippur War.

Dwayne Johnson, whose production company has produced gun-heavy action titles such as “Red Notice,” has pledged to stop using operable guns, saying “we won’t worry” about how it might affect visual effects costs. The director Guy Ritchie released a movie this year about the war in Afghanistan, called “The Covenant,” in which he said he used no real guns, telling Newsweek that Airsofts “look as good as real weapons.”

“There is absolutely no reason for anyone to be using real guns on sets,” said Rebecca West, a visual effects producer who has worked on action movies such as this year’s Ben Affleck thriller “Hypnotic,” which included a final shootout scene with gunfire that was entirely computer generated.

While accidents are considered rare, the “Rust” case has led insurers to take note of the risks. Laura Winn, the senior director of risk management for Wrapbook, a company that oversees payroll and insurance for entertainment companies, said that questions about the “Rust” tragedy have been front and center in meetings with insurance underwriters.

“They want to know, Could a ‘Rust’ incident happen to you, and what measures do you have in place to ensure that something like that couldn’t happen?” Winn said.

The old-fashioned revolver Mr. Baldwin was filming with the day of the shooting was supposed to hold only inert dummy rounds that would look good in a close-up, and he was told that day that the gun did not contain live ammunition. But law enforcement officials said that the movie’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, had in fact loaded it with five dummy rounds and one round of live ammunition. Ms. Gutierrez-Reed has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and has pleaded not guilty.

Earlier this month, Mr. Baldwin said on Kelly Ripa’s podcast, “Let’s Talk Off Camera,” that he favored getting rid of all types of ammunition on sets, and only using guns unable to fire.

“If there are no bullets, nobody gets hurt,” Mr. Baldwin, who has maintained that he was not responsible for the “Rust” tragedy, said on the podcast. “No blanks, no dummies and, of course, no live rounds — that goes without saying, or I thought it did.”

The armorer Dutch Merrick, who works on films and television shows, developed a course on gun safety after the “Rust” shooting.Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times

While some of the initial fear has faded, armorers say that they have seen a heightening of safety protocols, including greater care about testing dummy rounds to ensure they are not live and more oversight from studios.

The committee looking at the revision of the industry’s safety guidelines has been looking at the “Rust” case and discussing how to more clearly define terms and protocols — for example, ensuring that a safe area is established for cast and crew while guns are being used.

Dutch Merrick, who was the lead armorer on the second season of the HBO series “Euphoria,” said that not long after the “Rust” shooting the production was filming a scene in which a young actor was lying in a bathtub with guns and ammunition. So many production team members asked to inspect the guns and the dummy rounds, he recalled, that he set up tables where he laid out the weapons and demonstrated that the rounds were inert.

Since then, Merrick — who continued to monitor blank fire on the military drama “SEAL Team,” a show that he said can have eight armorers on it at a time — has developed a class on gun safety protocols. In it, he spends an hour and a half walking students through the gun-related deaths on modern Hollywood sets and what went wrong in each case: Jon-Erik Hexum, who shot himself in the head with a blank while mimicking Russian roulette on a TV set; Brandon Lee, who died after a bullet that had been unknowingly lodged in the gun’s barrel was discharged amid blank fire; and now “Rust,” which, he said, prompted the majority of his students to take his class.

“My goal since ‘Rust’ has been: How do I get the word out that what we do is safe,” Merrick said, “and how do we make it safer?”

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