by Paul Dowling
“Loaded or unloaded, a weapon never gets pointed at another human being.”
—Hollywood firearms consultant Bryan Carpenter, of Dark Thirty Film Services
The No. 1 Rule of Gun Safety
According to the New York Post, Bryan Carpenter, a leading Hollywood firearms expert, has said the “No. 1 rule” of gun safety is the following: “Loaded or unloaded, a weapon never gets pointed at another human being.” Carpenter went on to say “you never let the muzzle of a weapon cover something you don’t intend to destroy” because “the firearm is always presumed loaded.” This is sound advice, especially when scenes are being filmed that require an actor, or actors, to shoot at other individuals. Deceptive camera angles can always be employed to make shooters appear to be aiming directly at their targets. And in the case of an actor firing directly into the camera, a director of photography can always be given time to stand away from the camera before calling, “Action!”
The Actor Must Perform the Final Safety Check of Any Weapon
The actor on the set — as the last person in the chain of gun custody before a gun’s discharge — must be the person who is responsible for performing the ultimate safety check before the trigger is pulled. This would include a check of the gun’s action as well as the gun’s barrel. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) has posted safety rules for handling firearms, which include “Use Correct Ammunition” and “Be Sure the Barrel Is Clear of Obstructions Before Shooting.”
Respect Any Firearm Being Discharged
Anyone planning to discharge a weapon, be that weapon loaded with live rounds or blank cartridges, must assume the serious responsibility of “using only the correct ammunition.” Also, one must exercise the utmost caution, even when the ammo being used is blank cartridges. One must keep in mind that blank cartridges are loaded with actual gunpowder, the blast from which poses a clear and present danger to anyone who may find oneself too close to the gun barrel when it discharges.
It should not be forgotten that although Jon-Erik Hexum, star of the early 1980s series Cover Up, did not die on the set, his death was caused by the discharge of a gun that had a blank cartridge in the chamber. According to The Straight Dope, “on October 18, 1984, the 26-year-old Hexum took a .44 Magnum revolver loaded with blanks, pressed the barrel to his head, and fired a single shot. … In the case of Mr. Hexum, the force of the blast alone shattered his skull and badly injured his brain, killing him shortly thereafter.”
However, even at a responsible distance from the gun barrel, death can be the result if the barrel has not been checked for debris that could pose a danger upon discharge of the weapon. Marco Margaritoff has reported that “[o]n March 31, [1993, Brandon] Lee was shot dead in a scene gone wrong on the set of his upcoming film, The Crow, when his costar fired a prop gun that had a dummy bullet lodged in its chamber.” In all likelihood, the “dummy bullet” mentioned was a squib round.
Concealed Nation describes why a squib round can be so dangerous: “By definition; A squib load, also known as a squib round, pop and no kick, or just a squib, is a firearm malfunction in which a fired projectile does not have enough force behind it to exit the barrel, and thus becomes stuck.” In the case of a blank round being fired behind the squib, the squib can become a deadly projectile with the power to kill anyone standing in its path.
In the case of Halyna Hutchins, the New York Post reported that Alec Baldwin “fired a prop gun that killed [her].” An investigation ensued to determine whether the death of Ms. Hutchins was due to the firing of a live round — as the trade union known as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees has claimed — or whether her death might have been attributable to a squib load or some other cause entirely. The latest indications are that the prop gun discharged by Baldwin may have been “used off-set for ‘target practice.'”
In the cases of both Lee and Hutchins, due to failure to perform an adequate safety check, an actor was handed a hot gun, rather than a cold one, with unnecessary tragedy being the result. A responsible safety check by the actor wielding the firearm could have prevented death in both instances.
NRA Gun Safety Training for All Professional Actors
An important part of the National Rifle Association’s mission is gun safety. These words about firearm safety can be found on the NRA website: “At the NRA, firearm education and safety is paramount — that’s why we offer a variety of programs and services to promote the safe handling, use and storage of firearms.” Safety is, quite simply put, a part of the culture of gun-owners. When safety rules are being followed by individuals who are properly handling their firearms, accidental mishaps are indeed rare.
While there are many responsible organizations to choose from that train gun-owners in firearms safety, the NRA, at the time of this writing, provides the gold standard. This is because the NRA has made the training of law enforcement in the safe use of firearms a priority. In fact, the NRA states on its website that “[t]oday, there are more than 13,000 NRA-certified police and security firearms instructors” as well as “[o]ver 125,000 certified instructors [who] now train about 1,000,000 gun owners a year . . . in basic rifle, pistol, shotgun, muzzleloading firearms, personal protection, even ammunition reloading.”
How might things have turned out differently if Alec Baldwin had merely been required by the Screen Actors Guild to take an NRA gun safety course?