santa fe district attorney
Santa Fe DA explains decision to charge Alec Baldwin over 'Rust' shooting
02:39 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter @JillFilipovic. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

In a nation beset by gun violence and that levies too few consequences on irresponsible gun owners and users, it’s pretty surprising to see that actor Alec Baldwin will be charged with involuntary manslaughter in New Mexico after a tragic accident on the set of the film “Rust” in October 2021.

Jill Filipovic

Authorities say Baldwin was using a gun he was handed by an assistant director, which he had no reason to believe was loaded with a live round – and indeed, the assistant director reportedly told the people on set that it was a “cold gun.”

Baldwin was doing a “cross draw” – pulling a gun from a holster on the opposite side of his body from his draw hand. In the scene, Baldwin was told to point the gun toward the camera lens.

That was when director Joel Souza said he heard “what sounded like a whip and then a loud pop.” A shot went off, striking cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in the chest and killing her. A bullet also hit Souza in the shoulder, but he survived.

Baldwin denies he pulled the trigger, saying he only pulled back the hammer and released it.

A freak occurrence?

At first glance, the charges against Baldwin, which have been welcomed by Hutchins’ family, seem extreme.

While I don’t believe there are many true “accidents” involving guns – it’s hard to bring a weapon designed to maim and kill into the picture and then find yourself surprised when that weapon maims or kills – the wholly aberrational circumstances of this shooting do make it seem like a freak occurrence.

Movie sets have layers of professionals and safety protocols to ensure that things like this don’t happen, which is precisely why things like this don’t typically happen (the last high-profile incident like this one was when Brandon Lee was shot and killed on the set of “The Crow” in 1993 when a co-star fired a prop gun that was loaded with a real bullet).

Yes, usually it is the responsibility of the person holding that gun to not point it at anyone unless they intend to shoot; it is usually the responsibility of the person holding the gun to know for sure whether or not it’s loaded by checking the carriage before they do anything else.

But this was a movie set, where responsibilities are delegated and actors have every reason to believe that the guns they are being handed are props – or at least unloaded, or loaded with blanks.

I would guess that a great many actors have never held, owned or fired a gun outside of a movie set. Just like many actors have never, outside of a movie set, scaled a building, performed surgery, won a sword fight, given birth or walked flawlessly in stilettos.

It’s acting in the movies – by definition, a space of fantasy and falsity and faking it. Which is why there’s a team of pros nearby to make the faking look real.

What industry experts say

Baldwin the actor, in other words, perhaps didn’t behave perfectly – he could have checked the gun, although it’s not clear that actors doing so is industry standard.

According to New Mexico First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies, other “A-list” actors have told her that they “always check their guns or have someone check it in front of them.”

But according to Dutch Merrick, a studio armorer and instructor, that’s not the case: “There is no hard-and-fast rule that says an actor must check a gun,” he told the New York Times.

The union representing film and television actors, SAG-AFTRA, said in a statement that the “prosecutor’s contention that an actor has a duty to ensure the functional and mechanical operation of a firearm on a production set is wrong and uninformed.” They continued: “an actor’s job is not to be a firearms or weapons expert.”

And Baldwin, for his part, said that throughout his career it has not been a standard for actors to check their guns.

Other safety issues on set

It doesn’t seem wholly unreasonable for Baldwin to have relied on the multiple professionals around him whose job it was to ensure that the gun was safe. Under these truly unusual and specific circumstances, it’s hard to say he should be on the hook for involuntary manslaughter.

But: Baldwin wasn’t just an actor in this film; he was a producer as well, and therefore, arguably, had an elevated level of responsibility for on-set safety. If this gun firing was a one-off, perhaps one could still safely say that this was a tragedy, not a crime.

The shooting that killed a bright, talented cinematographer, though, was not the only safety issue on set.

There were reportedly two accidental gun discharges on set just days before the shooting. Six members of the camera crew had walked off the set shortly before the shooting – not for issues with the guns or props, but in objection to being over-worked and paid late.

Dave Halls, the assistant director who handed Baldwin the gun, has been the subject of complaints on previous movie sets for allegedly lax safety standards. And one crew member called it “the most unorganized set I’ve ever seen.”

Baldwin, for his part, blames both Gutierrez-Reed and Halls, saying he feels terrible about what happened but it isn’t his fault; those two in turn say through their lawyers that Baldwin is deflecting responsibility.

Who does the buck stop with?

According to industry professionals, both the armorer and the assistant director – in this case, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed and Halls – should have checked the chamber before telling Baldwin the gun was cold and safe to use and should have demonstrated as much in front of him.

Gutierrez-Reed was reportedly off set the day of the shooting because of Covid-19 protocols, which limited the number of people who could be there. The accidental discharges in particular point to a set that wasn’t being run as safely as it needed to be – and the buck there stops with the producers, including Baldwin.