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It was a story that dominated national news this year — the tragic shooting on the set of the film Rust. It was Oct. 21 when actor and producer Alec Baldwin accidentally fired a shot that killed Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. Such fatalities are a rare occurrence among thousands of movies.
Nearly every western, crime and police drama, and every military movie – as well as many others – contain scenes where firearms are a part of the story.
The most-notable prior firearms-related death in industry during the last few decades was nearly 30 years ago, on the set of "The Crow" in 1993, taking the life of actor Brandon Lee, the son of legendary martial artist and actor, Bruce Lee.
Reasons for the rarity of such fatalities include the cinematic industry’s enhanced safety protocols, as well as increased use of digital effects.
“The safety protocols are extensive,” said Corey Ronald Walter, a Niagara County resident who is majority partner of Cinematic Firearms & Consulting, LLC, a company based in Erie County. Walter also has 20-years experience as a federal law enforcement officer and is a member of the Screen Actors Guild.
Firearms safety on the set of films is the responsibility of the “armorer,” said Walter. Occasionally, the armorer is also a stunt person.
Walter is certified as an armorer, which is similar to a gunsmith, with the most significant difference being that gunsmiths generally have the added ability to make or build a gun, where the armorer specializes in the repair of weapons, and is trained in handling firearms.
According to Walter, on-set gun-safety protocols are based on redundancies. Several steps, build on one another, each of which is designed to assure and reassure that the firearm is safe and will be used safely.
“Whenever a firearm comes on the set, everything stops.” Walter said. “The armorer brings the weapon on set, and there is a safety brief. The entire cast and crew is able to look at the weapon and to know how it is to be used. As soon as the scene has ended the armorer re-secures the firearm.”
Walter indicated an elaborate system with a number of steps in the security process, including the safety brief, a chain-of-custody ensuring the gun is locked and safe until the instant it is needed on-set, as well as bore brushing and a lighted inspection of the barrel to be sure that no debris or other object is there.
Other steps that are taken for safety purposes include modifications, to partially disable the firearm, and on-set banning of live ammunition.
With the "Rust" tragedy, some have called for additional steps to be taken. Baldwin, who apparently held the gun that discharged the fatal round, suggested on social media that a police officer should always be on set when firearms are present, as an additional step to guarantee safety.
Buffalo Niagara Film Commissioner, Tim Clark, says that he has seen that protocol used in this region. Clark pointed to the movie "Crown Vic," which was filmed in the area. He said that a Buffalo police officer who was on set also performed weapon inspections.
Ironically, the director of "Crown Vic," Joel Souza, also directed "Rust" and was wounded with the same shot that killed Hutchins.
“I was very surprised to learn that this tragedy happened on a Joel Souza film,” said Clark, “just because they were so extremely safety-conscious on the set of 'Crown Vic.' ”
“Every labor union related to the industry will likely be discussing possible additional measures,” said Walter, “in the meantime producers hiring certified armorers is, without a doubt, the most important of on-set firearms safety precautions.”
Clark, who, in addition to his role as Buffalo Niagara Film Commissioner, is the current chairman of the Association of Film Commissioners International agrees.
“This tragedy means the industry will look for other ways to react to ensure safety is in the forefront when weaponry is involved in the making of a movie,” he said. “We are not in a life or death business here, nobody should be killed on the set of a film.”
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