Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023
On October 21, 2021, actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot a cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, and injured director Joel Souza on the set of the western film, Rust. Details of the tragic accident are still surfacing, but the incident has already sparked debate over the safety of cast and crew in Hollywood. With access to so much technology and computer-generated work behind the scenes, there is no longer a need for real guns in Hollywood. Despite the regulations on guns on Hollywood film sets, accidents still happen. Cast and crew should not have to risk their lives over something that is one hundred percent preventable.
Gun safety in Hollywood
Films often use “prop” firearms, which can consist of anything from a fake, rubber gun to a real gun with the potential to shoot live ammunition. Once the gun is used for firing, even if it is just firing blanks, it is considered a real gun. However, blanks are not one hundred percent safe. If fired at close range, they still have the ability to kill or seriously injure someone. These “prop guns” add authenticity to Hollywood films and create imagery that is not always easy to recreate with computer-generated imaging (“CGI”) or computer animation. Firing a real gun with blanks, no matter how dangerous it can be, makes the scene look realistic. It is also more expensive and tedious to add gunfire in the scene post-production through CGI than to use real guns with blanks. Although states regulate who can own a gun, the rules for gun usage in the film industry have been mostly set by the industry itself.
Despite the benefits of guns on film sets, there have still been accidents on sets that have resulted in death or serious injury. In 1993, Brandon Lee (Bruce Lee’s son), was killed by a prop gun on the set of his film, The Crow. Lee was filming a scene where another character fired a gun at his character. Unfortunately, a simple scene cost him his life. As previously stated, prop guns are a misnomer as they can be real guns that only shoot blanks. They are not ‘fake guns’ but real guns with blank bullets. But, like the Baldwin incident, the gun that killed Brandon Lee somehow ended up being loaded with a real bullet that ultimately ended up killing Lee. In another incident in 1984, actor Jon Erik-Hexum died on the set of the show Cover Up, when he shot himself with a prop gun that fired a blank cartridge at close range.
Like in most workplaces, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) typically handles the regulation of working conditions and injuries on movie sets in Hollywood. However, film studios hold a lot of power, even with government agencies. When accidents happen on set, OSHA fines film studios in the effort to make studios increase safety measures and prevent future accidents. However, OSHA has been known to lower the penalty on film studios after accidents. For example, OSHA fined the studio behind Brandon Lee’s death $84,000. The fine was later reduced to $55,000 while the film grossed more than $50 million.
The gun that killed Halyna Hutchins was loaded with live rounds, which is typically against industry standards. When Baldwin was handed the gun on October 21, 2021, he was told it was a “cold gun” and therefore safe to use. According to guidelines set by The Actor’s Equity Association, the gun should have been test-fired before its use. The prop master on set should have also made sure there was not a bullet or foreign object inside. Unfortunately, the details are not clear as to what happened and what steps were passed over to result in the fatal injury. What is known is that a few hours before the fatal accident, cast and crew walked off the set of the film to protest dangerous working conditions and cutting corners. Professionals have opined that at times, cast and crew are encouraged to speed things up for the sake of production, which may have led to the accident.
Eliminate real guns in Hollywood
After the death of Halyna Hutchins, there has been an outcry from the public and producers alike calling for more regulation on Hollywood sets. California state senator, Dave Cortese is planning to introduce legislation that bans live ammunition, and firearms that can fire live ammunition from film sets in California. Although computer-generated effects may not give off the realistic look that producers and directors want, it is a much safer alternative and can save lives. There is no need for an actor or crew member to risk their lives for something as simple as a gun scene in a film or show, especially with the advancements in today’s technology. Although there are safety risks to most jobs, it is not reasonable to expect cast and crew to risk their lives over something as small as realistic gun powder in a movie scene.