A little over a year ago, a tiny film set in New Mexico exploded into larger publicity and controversy when a prop gun fired a live round, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injuring director Joel Souza. The storm of publicity revealed the various allegations of safety lapses and misbehavior happening on the set of the movie, “Rust,” as crew members protested safety conditions, an inexperienced armorer and more.
On January 31, New Mexico prosecutors filed involuntary manslaughter charges against Alec Baldwin, the star and producer of the film and armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed. If convicted, they could both spend a mandatory five-year prison sentence. The prosecutors have placed the brunt of the blame on Baldwin, arguing that as the one firing the gun, he was directly responsible for the shooting. Baldwin himself has repeatedly denied responsibility, claiming that first assistant director David Halls instructed him to point the gun at the crew. He also stated that gun safety did not fall into his duties as an actor and that he did not pull the trigger. However, FBI analysts reported for the gun to fire, the trigger had to have been pulled.
This case has had broader implications for Hollywood. Since the incident, there have been calls within Hollywood to increase safety on set. The shooting of Halyna Hutchins was not a stroke of bad luck but rather the result of a string of breached safety protocols leading to the incident. Just a couple of hours before the fatal shooting, most of the crew on “Rust” walked off set in protest over alleged inattention to safety and pay disputes. Gutierrez Reed had been reprimanded by the production manager for failing to do her job. Had safety protocols been followed by an experienced, competent safety crew given proper time to manage all of their duties, perhaps Hutchins would still be alive.
Baldwin as a producer of the movie was also responsible for ensuring reasonable safety conditions. He held a gun in his hand but failed to act like he was. He did not check for himself that there was no live ammunition in the gun. As he said later, he felt it was not part of his job to do so. But this is not about what was in his job description. It is about acting responsibly with a gun, even under the supervision of a professional. If someone is holding a weapon in their hand and it is fired, they are responsible for what happens. A manslaughter charge could bring immediate, stark changes on film sets. There’s nothing Hollywood hates more than a liability, and if Baldwin is found responsible for the “Rust” shooting, it sets a precedent for gun safety to be taken more seriously.
Even if Baldwin is not charged, this tragedy will follow him for the rest of his life. Every time he gives an interview or promotes a movie, someone watching will think and comment about the “Rust” shooting. His reputation will have a serious stain, and it does not feel as if audiences will be receptive to him in the near or far future. But will it have an impact on his career? Hollywood has had a history of protecting men much worse than Baldwin. Although he will not be producing, he will continue to be cast. As we have seen repeatedly, those with power in Hollywood do not fall easily.