Prop Gun
Shutterstock / Dzm1try

Many martial artists have been following the incident, investigation, and the ongoing ugly litigation of the tragic Rust movie set shooting that resulted in one death and one injury by the hand of actor Alec Baldwin on at 1:51 p.m. on October 22, 2021. The reason for paying close attention to this incident is that many martial arts schools around the world include firearms training in their curriculum, something I recommended to Black Belt Magazine readers going back to 1999, at various levels: non-firing replicas (such as rubber, plastic, or wooden training guns for take-aways), paintball guns and airsoft guns for realistic scenarios, and real firearms on a live-fire gun range for self-defense. However, along with the use of any firearm for self-defense training, be non-firing ones or the real thing, comes specific safety protocols that must be followed, or else you can end up being the next "Rust story."


Before I give you the debriefing on the “Rust” tragedy, which will serve as a case study for you on how to avoid making similar mistakes, if firearms of any kind are part of your self-defense training, I'll first provide you with my firearms background, which will qualify me to address this issue. This is important because it will serve as a model as to what kind of background an armorer in the movie industry should have, and yet was apparently lacking with the low budget ($6-7 million) production of “Rust.”

I am currently a National Rifle Association (NRA) pistol instructor and chief range safety officer (RSO), meaning that I can teach and certify safety officers for live-fire ranges. I was a certified RSO with the U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton for small arms (pistol, shotgun, fully automatic rifles, sniper rifles, and fragmentation hand grenades). I have also been an official live-fire firearms instructor for dozens of law enforcement, corrections, probation & parole agencies, and military units to include the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Marshal Service, Argentinean G.O.E., Brazilian GATE, Helsinki Police Department, German counterterrorist team GSG9, Navaho Nation S.W.A.T., and the list goes on. The list is even longer for non-firing firearms courses that I have taught to professionals (small unit tactics, defensive tactics, and combatives). Although I have never been an armorer on a movie set, I have been a range safety officer using actual blank-firing movie prop firearms loaned to the military for scenario training. After all, Hollywood is only two hours north of Marine Base Camp Pendleton.

I've also appeared in a couple of movies, and thanks to my student and good friend Butch Pierson, a world-renowned Hollywood direct of photography who recently retired, I've been on several movie sets with him during filming. Also, when Black Belt Magazine was producing my first video series, "Reality-Based Personal Protection", I had all kinds of replica and live-fire firearms at the studio and on the live-fire range, and not one safety violation. In fact, I was the very first martial artist in Black Belt Magazine history that appeared on the front cover with a firearm in the January 2002 issue. Actually, it was two pistols. One in my hand at a low ready position, and the other in a holster on my tactical vest. Of course, I've taught thousands of civilian martial artists in 20 countries about guns since most of my self-defense courses include some sort of gun training. Finally, my last firearms course I taught was, let’s see, yesterday, to a security team.

At the time of the writing of this article here’s what we know so far about the “Rust” shooting, according to the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Department in New Mexico, which is the agency conducting the investigation. Actor Alec Baldwin, playing the role of a Western outlaw, was rehearsing a scene inside of a church where he was sitting on a wooden church pew. The scene required the use of an antique-era appropriate prop gun, which had just been retrieved from the “gun cart” located outside of the church. Although it had been placed there by the film’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, it was Assistant Director Dave Halls who took the gun off the prop cart, went inside the church, and handed it to Alec Baldwin who was instructed to cross draw the Colt .45, swing it around, and point it directly at the camera lens. Behind the camera was Director of Photography Halyna Hutchins, 42, and standing next to her was director Joel Souza.

Alec Baldwin, having been told that it was a “cold gun,” meaning a prop gun unable to fire a bullet or even blanks, drew the gun, pointed it towards the camera for the close-up angle, and then an unexpected “loud pop” was heard. Instantly Ms. Hutchins grabbed her midsection and stumbled backwards, and Mr. Souza was bleeding from his shoulder. Both were rushed to the hospital, and Ms. Hutchins died when she arrived.

In a news briefing given a few days later District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies stated that the prop was actually “a legit gun,” and that “there were an enormous amount of bullets on this set.”

According to the Los Angeles Times story titled ‘Rust’ crew describes on-set gun safety issues and misfires days before the shooting, written by Meg James and Amy Kaufman, “safety protocols standard in the industry, including gun inspections, were not strictly followed.” The story also mentioned that there were “three accidental discharges” prior to the homicide, and that conditions were “super unsafe.”

Months after the Sheriff’s initial investigation of the shooting incident a lot of contradictory statements surfaced. Lisa Torraco, Assistant Director Dave Hall’s attorney, said that her client did not grab the gun off the gun cart and hand it to Alec Baldwin. Eight days after the shooting armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed released a statement saying that “the whole production set became unsafe,” because she had to work two positions (prop assistant and armorer), which prevented her from focusing full-time as the film’s armorer. She then hired former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Bowles as her attorney, and on December 7, 2021, he told ABC News, “She had two duties: prop duties and armor duties. She had spun the cylinder, she had given it to Halls, she had shown him each of the six rounds. Halls was going to take custody of that weapon. He was inside the church then; Hannah was outside the church having to do her prop duties.” Then on January 12, 2022, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed filed a lawsuit against Seth Kenney, the owner of PDQ Arm & Prop, accusing him of providing a mix of dummy and live rounds to the set that created the “dangerous condition.” In response to that accusation, Seth Kenney told ABC News, “It’s not a possibility that they (the live rounds) came from PDQ or from myself personally.” Adding to the controversy, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed’s father, Thell Reed, a world champion live ammo quick draw artist and armorer for a number of films who taught his daughter the profession, was quoted that he believes that the “Rust” incident was “sabotage.” Someone had purposely inserted a live round into the prop gun. Actor Alec Baldwin also spoke with ABC News, and he added, “I let go of the hammer – bang, the gun goes off. I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never. Never. That was the training I had. You don’t point a gun at someone and pull the trigger.”

I’m not going to speculate exactly how this shooting occurred, because contradictory statements have been made by both the involved parties and some witnesses, but there are some things that can be learned from this incident for both Hollywood and martial artists alike who use any type of firearms in their training videos or hands-on training, be it rubber or plastic training guns to practice disarm techniques, airsoft guns that shoot a 6mm plastic projectile, replicas that fire blanks, or even real firearms on a live-fire range.

1. Treat all firearms, even if they solid rubber, plastic, or wood, as if they were the real thing, and by this, I mean that they are to be considered loaded. If I, a self-defense instructor, catch anyone of my students playing or goofing around with such a training gun, or even a training knife for that matter, I instantly bring the violation to everyone’s attention and I punish the violator immediately (usually in the form of push-ups or some other physical exercise). Over the years I’ve seen students and instructors alike twirl the training gun, scratch their heads with the muzzle, or even point the weapon at others when instructions are being given.

2. If airsoft guns are to be used, even before these firearms are touched, everyone must put on the minimum safety equipment of wrap-around eye protection. A 6 mm projectile flying at 1 Jule or more can put out an eye.

3. If airsoft guns are being used, then the proper loading or clearing procedures must be strictly followed using a gun clearing trap, which is something you can make yourself. It just so happens that before the “Rust” shooting incident I wrote the article You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out! Using a gun clearing trap is almost the same safety protocols on a live-fire range using a real metal gun clearing trap that can trap a real bullet fired. I don’t know if the “Rust” movie’s armorer had a bullet clearing trap or not on the “gun cart” or nearby, but it should be standard equipment on any movie set, even with airsoft guns.

4. Always have a Range Safety Officer (RSO) supervising the training if any training gun can fire a non-lethal projectile; even it’s a Nerf gun (again, treat every training gun like the real thing). A Nerf gun dart can still injure the eye if it’s not protected. The instructor and the RSO can be one and the same, but it’s much better to have a second person focusing entirely on safety, thereby freeing up the instructor to teach. This brings us to an important point. Every self-defense instructor using airsoft guns or paintball guns should become a certified RSO, and most definitely if you’re using blanks or teaching people protection with a gun on a live-fire range. That said, anyone in the class should be able to call a “CEASE FIRE!” if they see a safety violation. Safety is everybody’s business.

5. If someone is injured or killed during training, the people you most definitely don’t talk to is the media. At least not until after all litigation has been concluded. When the police arrive to investigate the incident the only questions you are required to answer are those about your identity: your name, where you work, where you live, et cetera. Any questions about the incident you have the right to say, “I want to speak to my attorney,” even if you don’t have an attorney on retainer at the time you said it, and you keep your mouth shut. Remember that “anything you say can be used against you.”

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to train Hollywood cameramen, stuntmen, and actors how to use various weapons; not on any movie sets, but at training facilities where these people have attended my courses. As such, it is my firm belief that any person handling weapons on a movie set should have professional training with the weapon they’ll be using, be it an impact weapon, edged weapon, or a firearm. If an actor is handed a prop gun, they should not just rely on the film’s “gun expert’s” word for it that the prop gun is “safe.” He or she should be able to check the condition of the weapon before acting with it.

I agree with what Shannon Lee, sister of Brandon Lee who was killed on the film set of “The Crow” in 1993 by a blank that propelled a projectile that was unknowingly lodged inside the barrel, that “with all the special effects that are possible and all of the technology, there is no reason to have a prop gun or a gun on a set that can fire a projectile of any sort.” As I mentioned before, even an airsoft gun can be dangerous. It is unacceptable to have a serious injury or death in making a film. As I always say to my beginning self-defense students, “We want realism, but not real injuries or death,” and that is only achieved with strict safety protocols and adhering to them.

BE A HARD TARGET

Movie Set

Just shooting a simple movie scene can involve a dozen people around a single actor. This is how it’s possible for two people to be shot on the “Rust” movie set at the same time. I took this photo when I was on a Hollywood movie set to show what a filming environment is like.

gun range

When Black Belt Magazine was filming the series “Reality-Based Personal Protection” some of the scenes required actual shooting on a live-fire range. I, a sergeant with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department at the time, oversaw the firearms safety, but because I was also being filmed, I made sure that I had a Range Safety Officer (RSO) on the set as well.

firearm stunt man

Myself with a Hollywood stuntman, one of my firearms students, posing on a live-fire range. This stuntman, on his own time and spending his own money, hired me so he’d be an expert with firearms for his job, even though the firearms he regularly used on movie sets did not fire projectiles, and that’s because he knew that even blanks can be deadly. Case in point, the tragic death of Brandon Lee in 1993 on the movie set “The Crow.”

linda-and-shannon-lee

Here I am with Shannon Emery Lee (sister of Brandon Lee) and Linda Lee Cadwell (mother of Brandon Lee) at the 2006 Black Belt Hall of Fame Awards where I was voted Self-Defense Instructor of the Year by the readers. Shannon Lee, who lost her brother to failed safety protocols of a prop gun, is now calling for film sets to have mandatory gun safety training and reducing the use of firearms as props.

gun simulation

I taught a firearms course to the instructors of the Helsinki Police Department and the Finnish Police Academy using FX Simunitions®. Shot from actual firearms, the projectile is a plastic bullet that breaks upon contact releasing a colored liquid. These training rounds can cause serious injury or death without proper safety protocols. In this photo the police officer fires at an “armed suspect” during a felony car stop scenario.

s.w.a.t realistic scenario

This photo was taken in 1990 when I first started running S.W.A.T. teams through realistic scenarios. The actor on the left is armed with a real firearm in his waist band that fired blanks. Several safety checks were conducted before the words, “Start the scenario!” were ever given.

terrorism self defense

This is a realistic scenario in my Terrorism Survival course that I taught in Surrey, Canada. The “terrorists” are firing 6 mm projectiles from airsoft guns at a “victim” who is trying to escape the attack. The same firearms safety protocols that are used on a live-fire range were used throughout this 8-hour course.

Black Belt Magazine Cover

After the terrorist attacks on American soil on September 11, 2001, and the global war on terrorism was declared, Black Belt Magazine selected me to be the first person in the magazine’s history to appear on the front cover holding a firearm, and that’s because they knew my extensive firearms background.

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