Out with prop guns in film

Emmy-winning actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun that accidentally killed one person and injured another on the set of “Rust” on Oct. 21, and I haven’t felt the same since then.

Investigations by the Santa Fe Police Department revealed the gun was loaded with a live round, and not blank cartridges like typical prop guns. Assistant director Dave Halls handed Baldwin the gun just before the shooting, shouting that it was “cold,” meaning it contained no live ammunition.

Baldwin pulled the trigger, rehearsing a scene which involved pointing the gun toward the camera lens, and a real bullet fired, which killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza.

The news of the tragedy has left me with a disquieting twinge of pain in my chest since I first read the headline.

Perhaps it’s my generation’s general distaste for guns; some have referenced Generation Z as the “mass shooting generation,” referring to the prevalence of mass shootings and ensuing youth-led protests during our adolescence.

Instances of gun violence and accidents are particularly difficult for me and others my age to digest. Tragedies such as these have shaped our opinions on gun control since we were young, as the latest news already has. As the story developed, a group of The Lumberjack staffers, including myself, stopped what we were doing in the Media Innovation Center and stood transfixed around the TV to watch news coverage of the incident.

I’ve been mulling over how such a catastrophe could have happened for days; for starters, the fact that live ammunition was anywhere near the film set is close to incomprehensible to me.

How the gun was declared cold when it certainly wasn’t is another mystery. I’m not a gun expert, but if I was, I imagine I would know whether the ammunition in the gun had the capacity to kill or injure anyone. This leads me to suspect the gun wasn’t adequately checked in the first place.

With that being said, the investigation is ongoing, and Sante Fe County District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said criminal charges are among possibilities moving forward. Law enforcement gets paid to get to the bottom of what happened, and lawyers get paid to prosecute or defend criminal charges. I’m not going to attempt to do either of those things here.

However, I do want to raise the question: Why are prop guns still being used in the first place?

They’ve proven time and time again to be dangerous. Brandon Lee died under similar circumstances while filming “The Crow” in 1993 — in a hauntingly similar incident, the prop gun his co-star fired to accidentally kill him was loaded with a live bullet.

Nevertheless, they are still dangerous when loaded with blank cartridges instead of real ammunition. Actor Jon-Erik Hexum died in 1984 after shooting himself with a prop gun blank on the set of the TV show “Cover Up.” In a wrongful death lawsuit, his mother alleged he should have been warned about the dangers of blanks.

TV writer David Slack tweeted, “Prop guns are guns. Blanks have real gunpowder in them. They can injure or kill — and they have. If you’re ever on a set where prop guns are treated without proper caution and safe handling, walk away.”

In the digital age, it’s easy for computers to generate animation and sound to mimic the firing of a gun. Considering muzzle flashes and other special effects are often added in post-production, regardless of whether a prop gun was used, using computer-generated images (CGI) is a much safer and more convenient option. Prop guns have the capacity to kill, yet I can’t imagine a scenario wherein CGI injures or kills anyone on a film set.

Some film professionals say firing real guns with blank cartridges makes the scene look more realistic than any other method. But this aspect comes at too high a cost when human error and faulty equipment cause injury or death on set. 

Technology gets more advanced every day, so complaints about a lack of authenticity will become less of a problem as time goes on. Until then, most people seeing a movie in theaters won’t notice or care whether a gunshot is CGI.

A life isn’t worth a marginally more realistic camera shot.

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