Tragedy in Hollywood: The Danger of “Prop” guns

Jake Cruz, Writer / Video Editor / Producer

On October 21, 2021, the film industry suffered the loss of a prolific creative mind, Halyna Hutchins, age 42. Hutchins was the visionary mind behind the camera on a diverse and expansive number of short and independent films. At the time of her death, she was working on her next feature project “Rust” which is directed by Joel Souza and stars Alec Baldwin. The creative world is mourning the loss of such bright talent. 

The incident occurred when the actor and producer on the film were practicing a camera shot that takes place in a church, in which Baldwin whips the pistol out and fires toward the camera. This camera angle gives the viewer the perspective that they are being shot at. When the gun was handed to Baldwin, he was informed that it was “cold” (a term used to describe when a firearm is not loaded with live ammunition of any kind) by the prop master, Hannah Guitierez Reed. Variety magazine reports however, that there was a “single live round” that escaped the inspection. This story closely aligns with CNN’s reporting where they quote Sharon Waxman CEO of the Wrap “There’s this pastime that crew members sometimes do, its called ‘plinking,’ and they go out into rural areas and they shoot at beer cans. This is with live ammunition. We learned that this happened the morning of the day that Halyna Hutchins was killed.” 

Yellow And Purple Toy Guns
Toy guns(Photo Ivan Samkov via Pexels)

When someone hears the term “Prop Gun” it is easy to dismiss that the object being used could pose any danger. This is all just the power of movie magic, right? Well not necessarily, while digital effects and CGI can easily transform any piece of plastic with realism, there are filmmakers who prefer to use blanks to achieve their vision. A blank is a modified bullet that does not contain the projectile at the tip of the casing like a normal bullet. This ensures that the blank delivers the desired muzzle flash effect; without the danger of the projectile shooting and harming someone. However, using blanks does not completely eliminate the danger, and if fired at close range, a blank can prove fatal. This was proven true in the 80’s when a bored actor, John Erik Hexum, unaware of the danger of a blank, decided to play a round of russian roulette with his “Prop” and lost his life as a result. 

The safety conditions combined with the general treatment of the crew working on Rust have been under scrutiny: “We cited everything from lack of payment for three weeks, taking our hotels away despite asking for them in our deals, lack of Covid safety, and on top of that, poor gun safety! Poor on-set safety period!” stated a camera man formerly employed on the production. The lack of concern for gun safety on any set is a cause for concern, as the dangers of blanks are known throughout the industry. Prior to the tragic events of October 21st, there had already been three misfires involving a gun on set, which has raised questions about the level of concern for safety being shown by the producers.  In protest of these conditions a large number of the crew walked out, and were replaced by non-union crew members on the morning of the incident. 

Black and White Production Scene Take Tool
(Photo by Obregonia from Pexels)

This terrible accident has overturned many lives; it has stolen from the world a talent that was just beginning to make its claim on the creative world. Considering the recent tragic events, what happens as a result? Does the industry just say “be careful” and move on? If such a thing were to be the case, then that would be a terrible waste. What is the point of experiencing tragedy,of fighting through failure, if not to pave a future where these experiences are utilized to better preserve life? 

The tragic loss of Halyna Hutchins presents the movie industry with a question: Is the visual end result worth the risk of using live ammunition on a set? As mentioned before, we live in an era of film where anything is possible with the magic of digital effects, so why even take even the slightest risk when alternatives are available? 

The fault for the loss of Hutchins lies not on the man that pulled the trigger, and not on the prop master that declared the gun cold; but on the cold force behind every money-minded move made by the producers of the film. Greed and penny pinching were what motivated many of the decisions on the set that upset the union crew. This is a tragic example of the subtle hand of capitalism infecting the lives of the working class. Workers in Hollywood have lately been preparing to strike,as the sentiment in the industry is that conditions since the pandemic started have been unfair and unbearable. If anything good comes from this tragedy, it should be a case for the importance of safe and comfortable working conditions.