By John F. Di Leo -
On Thursday, October 21, AD 2021, actor Alec Baldwin, a well-known anti-gun extremist, allegedly killed a cinematographer and injured the director, by firing a loaded gun directly at them during the making of a western movie called “Rust” on a remote film set in New Mexico.
As more information comes out every day, it is too early to write a definitive account of the incident, or even to completely rule out intentional homicide. At this writing, it appears to be agreed that an assistant director took a gun from a table, announced “Cold Gun” and handed it to Baldwin, who accepted it without personally checking it, then aimed it at the camera for a “point of view” shot, practicing his cross-draw before filming it, hitting both the cinematographer and the director with a single round.
There will likely be legal precedents set by this case; there will certainly be an avalanche of books and op/eds about it. Alec Baldwin will be pilloried in the press, and rightly so, but I wonder if the most important lesson of the incident may be lost in the storm.
Safety Issues on the Film Set
Even before the shooting, there had been numerous complaints by angry crew members, claiming that the standard safety requirements of the Screen Actors’ Guild were being regularly violated on the “Rust” set. Many union members of the crew had walked off the set some hours before the shooting, declaring it to be an unsafe environment, potentially forcing other remaining crew members to take over jobs for which they were unsuited or unprepared.
Hollywood has a long history with the safety concerns associated with gunfire on set. One of the catalysts for the founding of SAG, in fact, was the danger level, both perceived and often undeniably real, on the sets of gangster movies, war movies, and westerns in the early days of moving pictures. SAG’s safety protocols for firearm usage, requiring such things as constant inspections by everyone who touches the weapon, and a clear chain of custody between the armorers and actors, are highly respected and almost foolproof… as long as they are followed.
If an armorer loads the weapon with blanks, and an assistant armorer conveys it to an actor, all three of these individuals are expected to inspect the weapon. Don’t trust that there are blanks or dummy rounds in there, or that it’s completely unloaded, check it yourself to be certain. Always treat any weapon as if it’s loaded with live rounds; never aim at another human being. Even when you’re shooting blanks, you aim up and to the right, or up and to the left, at some harmless safe target… Just In Case.
Personal disclosure: Even as a minor actor in community theatre, I’ve used fake guns – non-fireable replicas – onstage. And even with these, the same rules apply. It takes no time to double check and confirm that it’s the non-fireable dummy weapon we expect, every time we pick it up, before going onstage. It’s worth the moment’s check for safety. There are a lot of props backstage, they do get mixed up on occasion. You can’t risk getting this wrong. Similarly, if we use retractable fake swords in a stage duel, we must check them too, every time, before we go onstage; we simply can’t risk stabbing another actor, only to discover too late that the “toy” blade didn’t retract after all.
Whether onstage or off, whether union or nonunion, whether performing live theatre, film or television, these standard rules (and many more) always apply where weapons are concerned.
Even when union members walked off the set of “Rust” on Thursday morning, and “Rust” started hiring nonunion employees to fill in the gaps, the SAG weapons protocols continued to apply. There is therefore no excuse – none – for Alec Baldwin (who was both an actor and producer on this set) to accept the gun and fire it without checking the weapon for himself upon receipt. By accepting the gun from an assistant director as reported (not an armorer or assistant armorer), by failing to check it himself to be certain it didn’t contain live ammunition, and by aiming directly at a human being, he appears to be in violation of multiple film set regulations, before we even start looking at the other people ahead of him in the chain of custody.
Anyone can make a mistake. Nobody’s perfect. But that’s exactly WHY so many regulations are in place… belt and suspenders, as they say… and why the violation of some of them establishes grounds for criminal charges.
The NRA, GOA, Boy Scouts, JROTC, and the Gun Culture
I don’t remember much from my childhood. It was a long time ago. But I recall firearm training with the Cub Scouts. We took our weapons out of their respective cases, and the first thing we did was to check the chamber to ensure they were empty before the lesson began.
Similarly, I remember rifle marksmanship at my JROTC high school. Two or three times a week, we would be issued a rifle for range practice. The rangemaster would check it to make sure it was empty, hand it to the cadet, and the cadet would check the chamber again.
As an adult, I went to a gun shop to buy a target pistol of my own. The salesman takes it out of the case, and checks to ensure it’s unloaded… he hands it to the customer… and guess what the customer does? He checks it again.
In every single one of these interactions, both parties – the person handing it over and the person receiving it – ensures that it’s pointed away from any human being – usually downrange, where there are no people – while performing the check.
As you might imagine, numerous organizations outside the performing arts have weapon-handling rules too. From the Boy Scouts to our nation’s hunting and shooting sports associations, from our local and state law enforcement organizations to our nation’s armed services, the United States of America have had training approaches in place, specifically to prevent incidents like the “Rust” set tragedy, for over a century.
Because of these rules, and because of all this experience handling firearms, if a person raised in this standard American "firearm friendly" environment had been in Alec Baldwin's shoes on Thursday, say, for example, the late Charlton Heston, onetime president of the NRA, it could not have happened, because such a person would have instinctively checked the chamber as soon he received the gun, and the assistant director's error would have been discovered before it was fired.
Lessons from the Siege of Boston
Let’s go back to the beginning. In 1775, the War of Independence began with the battles of Lexington and Concord, which soon led to a year-long period known as the Siege of Boston. The British had been occupying the city of Boston for eight years at this point, essentially putting the city under martial law. After Lexington and Concord, the Massachusetts militias, gradually joined by neighboring colonies’ militias and other volunteers, encamped at Cambridge, commencing a tense dance, both sides avoiding action for fear that the other side would win.
In fact, this was little more than a daring ruse, on the part of the Colonists. George Washington was commissioned a general by the Continental Congress, which appointed him Commander in Chief of the nascent Continental Army… then they sent him to Boston to turn that nervous settlement into an army worthy of the name.
Upon his arrival at Cambridge, General Washington discovered that this “Continental Army” primarily consisted of farmers without any kind of military experience whatsoever. Most of the members of many of the units had never held a weapon in their lives. They might have been able to acquit themselves well with axe, hatchet, shovel or saw, but the muskets of the day were utterly foreign to far too many of them. How on earth could they go into battle facing the Redcoats – well known to be the greatest, most professional fighting force on earth?
Our poorly-funded – correction, utterly un-funded – Continental Army could not afford the gunpowder and ammunition needed for training. Our troops, such as they were, were not only untrained, but essentially untrainable, because there were no supplies with which to train them. It took months of organization – collecting contributions of random metal to make bullets, recruiting ladies’ auxiliaries and church groups to collect the ingredients to make gunpowder – in order to get enough ammunition for our Continental Army to fight in the Battle of Dorchester Heights. Far too much of their training had to be “dry firing” – simulations – because they simply couldn’t spare the materials for much practice.
Not until the French, Dutch and others started loaning us money and supplies did we begin to get enough material to actually train our troops. Finally at winter quarters at Valley Forge – an eternity later, in the winter of 1777-1778 – they could finally begin to train properly, under the German drillmaster known as Baron von Steuben.
These awful military conditions – a population completely unfamiliar with weaponry – were remembered a few years later, when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written. The Second Amendment was to serve many purposes – the primary one was of course being to ensure that the citizens would always be as well armed as their government, so that the government would fear the citizens, rather than the other way around. But equally important was the ability of the public to use weapons themselves, privately, for hunting, for the sport of marksmanship, for self-defense – so that if someday the need would arise, and they would be called up to serve, they would be ready on Day One. A recruit who has been handling weapons since childhood is infinitely more valuable than a novice who would need to be trained… especially if a surprise invasion occurred and there simply was no time for six weeks of boot camp!
It was therefore our Founders’ plan that every American would be raised to be proficient with weapons. They wanted us to grow up with weapons in the home, keeping our neighborhoods safe and keeping our larders stocked. The rules of safe and efficient handling of weapons should be as familiar as mother’s milk to a free citizen of the United States of America.
Letting Down our Founding Fathers
The betrayal of our Founders’ plan didn’t happen overnight. Only gradually over the centuries did our nation grow into two Americas, one that valued, and preached, the Founders’ message of rugged individualism and the freedom philosophy… and one that did not; one that lost touch with the Founders, considered them “dated and irrelevant”, and welcomed instead an ever more powerful government to take over the needs that our Founders expected us to provide for ourselves.
While half of us still work for a living, to pay our own rent or mortgage, buy or grow our own food and drink, educate our own children and defend our neighborhoods, more and more of us are content to have the government supply our housing, our food, our schooling and our protection. These may be substandard; government housing and government schools are usually subpar, government food lacks variety, and government protection is nonexistent in city after city, state after state… but for those who choose that course, the lack of quality hasn’t yet dissuaded them.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the subject of the Second Amendment. Those of us who inherited the Founders’ plan are still adept with firearms, familiar with the rules, capable of handling them safely and using them with precision when the need arises. Those who turned away from the Founders’ plan, however, are unfamiliar with firearms; they fear them, disrespect them, blame them for society’s ills, and handle them wrong when they handle them at all.
Let us return to Alec Baldwin and the set of “Rust.” Some members of the crew were using these weapons for target practice off the set, then bringing them back to the set for use in the film. The weapons were loaded with live rounds one hour, then blanks the next. It was an accident waiting to happen, as certain union members had already declared when they walked off the set, just hours before the fateful shot.
There is plenty of blame to go around here. We have already seen how Alec Baldwin the actor, and whoever was acting as armorer and assistant armorer at the time, broke some of SAG’s rules in the moments leading up to the event. Further, we know that the production crew, which also included Baldwin as a producer, stands accused of either ordering or tolerating a number of safety violations even before the killings.
It is too early to be certain of the criminal penalties that the authorities will mete out. But it is not to early to recognize something else, a broader lesson for us all, in the story of this tragedy.
A key driver in this accident is the conflicted view in which some of us see firearms. Even on a western film set, a weapon is a weapon, and anyone raised in what we might call America’s “Second Amendment Culture” sees it as such.
A real gun – whether loaded or not – is always treated as a lethal instrument… but there are those on this film set who see the gun as “just a prop” – an article of fantasy, not unlike a backdrop, costume, or makeup kit.
It is this lack of learned respect, of instinctive processes, for firearms and other weapons, that contributed to the killing of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. Throughout his career, Alec Baldwin has thought of the firearm as a political villain, a subject for ridicule or hate, or as a prop on a movie set. You don’t instinctively check a costume or makeup kit every time to see if it will kill you; viewing the gun as a prop instead of as a weapon explains (not forgives, but explains), at least in part, his disregard for safety rules.
If an NRA member, boy scout or policeman were handed a gun with the introduction “Cold Gun!”, he would still check it to be sure before he did anything. But if an actor or producer, trying to get in one or two more scenes before sunset, thinks of it as “just a prop,” it’s understandable that he’ll think there’s nothing to check. It is a failing in how he was raised. To him, “Cold Gun” meant that this was a toy, because Alec Baldwin wasn’t raised in the culture that would have inoculated him against that delusion.
Our Founding Fathers were right to give us the Second Amendment. All the tools our Founders left us – from the Preamble to the Tenth Amendment – can do immense good, if given the chance.
But the Second Amendment cannot protect us if we don’t use it as intended. We were meant to have guns in the home, to train our children to use and respect them, and to be ready at a moment’s notice to use them – the right way – to their greatest effect when needed.
The question is not whether it is safe to use real weapons in the movies. The question is whether anything – from a handgun to a ballot – is safe in the hands of someone who is willfully unamerican.
America has gone far adrift from the course our Founders set for us. We need to return to the path; this tragic incident is just one more in a thousand examples.
Copyright 2021 John F Di Leo
John F Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based trade compliance trainer and transportation manager, writer and actor. A one-time county chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party, he has been writing regularly for Illinois Review since 2009.
A collection of John’s articles about vote fraud, The Tales of Little Pavel, and his 2021 political satires about current events, Evening Soup with Basement Joe, are both available in either paperback or eBook on Amazon.
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(illustration of General Washington aiming a rifle, by Tim O'Brien for Smithsonian Magazine)
Excellent. I hadn’t thought of the point you’re making here but now that you mention it, it’s totally obvious.
By the way, you may be interested to know that Thomas Fleming claimed that one of the advantages that the colonials had in the Battle of Bunker Hill was that New Hampshire farmers regularly fired their long rifles hunting game. The game they bagged funded the ammo.
On the other hand, every shot fired by a British regular cost the Crown money, so New Hampshire men were much more skilled at real shooting than British regulars.
I think you’ll find that fact in Now We Are Enemies, one of the best books ever written about a single battle.
The pistol Baldwin fired was a single-action revolver.
Unlike a semi-automatic pistol, where even if you remove the clip, there still could be a round in the firing chamber, just a glance at the front of the cylinder would tell any KNOWLEDGEABLE gun handler that those were REAL bullets in there.
There is no way the gun could have mis-fired, either.
Baldwin had to COCK it before he could FIRE it.
I guess a “smart-alec” he is, but is Alec “smart”? NO.
What a tragedy. Thank you for a thoughtful analysis of some of the larger issues this horrible accident raises.