After the ‘Rust’ Tragedy, Will Hollywood Ban Live Guns on Film and TV Sets?

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“If we lose a little verisimilitude, it’s a trade-off we have to make,” one veteran TV producer says

After the deadly shooting involving a prop gun on the set of Alec Baldwin’s indie Western “Rust,” momentum is growing in Hollywood to ban real guns from film and TV sets to prevent another horrific gun accident.

The sentiment has picked up steam in recent days, with showrunners for shows like ABC’s “The Rookie” and Amazon Prime’s superhero drama “The Boys” vowing to remove guns from the set and create gun sound effects digitally. Some are calling for Baldwin to step forward and lend his voice and clout to the no-gun movement.

Industry insiders who spoke to TheWrap were mostly leaning in the direction of a nonbinding petition that has gained 40,000 signatures since its Friday launch by filmmaker Bandar Albuliwi, a friend and former AFI classmate of Halyna Hutchins who was killed last Thursday by a prop gun discharged by actor-producer Alec Baldwin on the New Mexico set of “Rust.” The petition argues that the use of guns is no longer necessary on modern film sets and demands safer conditions on sets on the whole.

“Why does it have to be a real gun that fires real bullets? – it doesn’t,” one veteran network TV producer told TheWrap. “If we lose a little verisimilitude, it’s a trade-off we have to make.”

And while deadly accidents are exceedingly rare, they still happen. Even when Hollywood armorers use blanks, the gun is loaded with gunpowder and wadding to hold the gunpowder in place of a regular bullet that gets expelled when the trigger is pulled. That paper or wax wadding can do serious damage, especially at close range.

In 1993, actor Brandon Lee was killed on the set of “The Crow” by a gun that fired blanks from 15 feet away. (In recent days, Lee’s sister has spoken out about the “Rust” killing and the late actor’s former fiancée, Eliza Hutton, called for a ban on real guns on sets.)

In today’s tech-savvy Hollywood, a realistic gun scene does not require a real gun that is capable of ejecting any kind of projectile, Eric Young, the production chair at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media arts, said. “Muzzle flashes, smoke coming out of the barrel of the gun, shell casing ejection — that can be added in post,” he told TheWrap. He said a realistic dummy gun that can be made that would allow an actor to pull back the hammer and manipulate the gun in a realistic way without that gun having the capability of firing anything out of it.

“The major objection…is the question of recoil, how that looks on set when someone is using a gun…but that’s easily played by an actor,” Young said, referring to the force that pushes back against the shooter when the gun goes off, causing the body to move backward.

rust alec baldwin Bonanza Creek Ranch
Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the deadly accident on the set of “Rust” occurred; (inset) Alec Baldwin (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images; Jim Bennett/Getty Images)

However, Dave Brown, a firearms safety specialist and professional instructor based in Winnipeg, Canada, who has worked with hundreds of actors on movie sets, called the ban of real firearms on sets “ludicrous.” He called the troubled “Rust” set a “one-off situation where it was two, possibly three people doing gross negligence.”

Brown added that banning real firearms “is going to create problems that people don’t think about” by possibly allowing weapons handlers to forgo proper safety training.

“When you’re saying, let’s replace the real firearms with fake ones, we’ll give everyone a plastic toy gun and it will be wonderful, now you’re achieving the opposite,” Brown told TheWrap. “Now a producer comes in and says, ‘Well, that’s great, they’re not real guns, I don’t need a firearm safety coordinator or an armorer or a key weapons associate or whatever you want to term it. I don’t need that person anymore, I just need a props assistant. And I can pay a minimum wage, and all they’re going to do is just babysit a bunch of plastic guns. You’ve cut out the exact people who are doing a great job making those hundreds of thousands of movies without incident.”

Once real guns are taken out of the equation, Brown said, many directors will find it difficult to replicate the effects they seek — even allowing for the advanced state of today’s postproduction technology.

Brown described a theoretical scene in which the hero is pinned behind a pillar as enemy gunfire rains down, only to find he’s got only one bullet left in the chamber. A plastic prop gun may not allow for that realistic, key closeup of a weapon. He fears key closeups that point right down the barrel will no longer look as realistic. Any scene where the director wants to see the empty cartridges ejecting and flying through the air could now take enormous time and money to achieve through VFX.

In addition, he said most actors want to use real guns. “Who wants to be the one handing Samuel L. Jackson the plastic toy gun and saying, ‘Here, act. You can make it work. You can make it look real.’”

Even Brown knows there’s a place for fake weapons and visual effects. Working on Bob Odenkirk 2021 action film “Nobody,” he recalled shooting at locations with noise restrictions late at night or loud scenes in closed warehouses when they would film what they could before curfew and then switch to fake firearms. In those cases, he defies anyone watching the film to tell the difference between the real blanks and the digital effects.

The calls for banning live ammo have reached at least one state government official. Dave Cortese, a state senator from California, said he plans to introduce a bill that would ban live ammunition and firearms that can fire off live ammunition from film and TV sets. “This is really about workforce safety when you start thinking about what a set really looks like,” Cortese told TheWrap. “I just don’t think there’s any reason to have a gun that has a firing pin, or live ammunition available to put in a gun that has a firing pin in it. There’s just no need for that, there’s no reason for that. To take that risk is really a concept that goes back to the Wild West, and it’s 100 years old.”

Cortese and his office were already planning to address general workplace safety in a series of hearings, the planning of which started amid IATSE’s contentious negotiations with film and TV producers; the two sides reached a deal for a new contract earlier this month. “They’re not going to get everything that’s problematic in this industry resolved in this contract, so it needs to be one of the industries that we look at,” Cortese continued. “And then this happened.”

Cortese, who has been in communication with IATSE vice president Mike Miller, sees last week’s fatal accident as a broader indictment of the poor conditions that below-the-line workers have had to endure on sets. “We agreed that I should talk to some of the folks who are on site, not necessarily because they have grievances, but so that they can educate me on what processes they’re going through currently, with regards, particularly with the armorers, with regard to firearms,” he said. “We’re not trying to eliminate those folks. If anything, they may have as much or more work to do, depending on how stringent any codified rules are that we come up with.”

He also added that there is a groundswell of public support to strengthen or modify the rules for on-set weapons. “The average person just kind of says, really, in 2021, is that level of artistic staging really necessary? Are guns really still necessary?” Cortese, who is still drafting the new proposed law, is hopeful that California can be a trendsetter for tougher on-set restrictions to prevent tragedies like the one in New Mexico.

The police investigation into Hutchins’ death is ongoing; no charges have been filed.

“It’s appropriate for California to lead on this, because we’re essentially the home of the movie industry,” he said. “The fact that some of these rules and practices originated right here in California, I think it makes sense for us to go back and change them. And then I think we create best practices for people to follow.”

Sharon Waxman contributed to this report.

For the record: A previous version of this story listed the incorrect network for “The Boys.”