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The tragic shooting on the Rust movie set that resulted in the death of the film’s cinematographer and the wounding of the director brought back several memories, as well as underscoring that this was absolutely preventable.
In 1955, while playing Harvey Korman’s son in a theater production, a blank was fired each night on stage in a revolver. A blank is a munition that is designed to issue a loud report. It generally contains a shell case, primer and powder charge. The distinctive difference between a blank and an actual live round is that a blank doesn’t contain a projectile that could be fired out of the barrel.
During this one performance, the revolver was discharged too close to a woman on stage and the muzzle blast from the blank burned a hole in her nylon stockings, which produced a small trickle of blood running down her leg. This was a lesson that made a big impression on a six-year-old, and it was the beginning of my respect for firearm safety.
By the time Warner Bros. cast me in Lethal Weapon 3 in 1991, I had become a firearms expert, shooting combat matches at the South West Pistol League. This organization also influenced director Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral), and gun coach Taran Butler (John Wick). I was a certified NRA instructor, had spent two years in a Military Police Company, and trained with some of the best in the business.
The Lethal Weapon movies are a good example of Hollywood gun-handling at its worst. People in the movie business don’t really like or respect guns, they just like the money they make showing people doing goofy gun stuff. The late Richard Donner who directed all four of the Lethal Weapon movies was very anti-gun and would have probably preferred to make films without them. But again, the money was too good.
You could also put Alec Baldwin in this category. He has made many films with firearms present, but based on accounts of the recent shooting, it’s obvious that he doesn’t know even the most basic safety rule of all, namely, checking for yourself to see if the firearm you were just handed is loaded or not.
This is the first cardinal rule of firearm safety — treat all guns as if they are loaded.
If Mr. Baldwin had just done this one thing, this whole episode could have been avoided and no one would have died. It’s that simple.
My experience is a pertinent example. During the filming of Lethal Weapon 3, the prop master removed the barrel plug from my blank-firing prop pistol so it wouldn’t be detected by the camera in a close-up. Once the pistol was handed back to me, I immediately double-checked to make sure that it was unloaded. The scene called for me to point my pistol in the direction of Mel Gibson.
Unfortunately, on a set where Mr. Baldwin is the producer and star of the movie, he’s used to the crew catering to him. “Here’s your hot lunch, Mr. Baldwin,” or “Here’s your cold (i.e., unloaded) gun Mr. Baldwin.”
Based on reports, additional gun-safety protocols were broken on his movie set. Including allowing live ammunition on the set. This should never happen, especially when using actual firearms as props, instead of firearms designed to fire only blanks. Allowing crew members to use prop guns for informal target practice with live ammunition in their free time. Allowing guns loaded with live ammunition to be left with other prop guns. Leaving prop guns laying around unattended while the crew was off having lunch.
Not having everyone involved in the chain of custody, inspect the firearms to make sure that they weren’t loaded. This goes double for Mr. Baldwin, who was the person using the firearm in the scene. Basically, the last person who handles the firearm bears the ultimate responsibility.
The most important element in firearm safety training is consistency. Whenever I work with actors or stunt performers using live ammunition, I tell them that the same safety precautions we’re using on the range should also be used on a set. I warn them that it’s dangerous to use a lower threshold of safety on a set just because the guns are props and the ammunition allegedly isn’t real. If you don’t believe me, ask the sadder but wiser Mr. Baldwin.
There’s still a lot that we don’t know about this tragic event. However, the one thing we can be sure of, is that it could have easily been prevented.
(Mike Briggs has been a member of the SAG for over 33 years and has advised about firearm safety on movie sets. He’s a former instructor at the SIG SAUER Academy and the Lethal Force Institute. He owns New England Tactical, which specializes in firearm safety and proficiency training. Mike is also a member of the Concord Monitor Reader Advisory Board.)
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