We’re Filmmakers Who Work With Firearms: This Is What’s Important in On-Set Safety

Alec Baldwin

In a tragic accident, Alec Baldwin has fatally fired a prop gun on a film set in New Mexico. Credit: Gage Skidmore

In a horrendous accident, a cinematographer has died and a director has been injured after Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun while filming in New Mexico.

When shooting a film with guns, there are many choices to make: each prop needs to be appropriate for the character, and appropriate for the scene. There is also the choice of whether you will use replica weapons, real weapons, or a mix.

But most importantly, everyone on set needs to know how to work alongside guns.

A gun with no ammunition – that is, a gun with neither a bullet nor blanks – is not dangerous. But even so, on set there is always an armorer, a safety officer, and a stunt coordinator: at least three people who always have an eye on the guns on set.

We recently finished shooting Darklands, a psychological thriller starring Nadine Garner about a policewoman who fails to stop a shooting and is then pursued by a journalist determined to use the policewoman’s story to resurrect her own flagging writing career.

We used real weapons, but we only used blanks in one scene. The night we fired the blanks was a very controlled situation, working with a very experienced crew. The safety of our cast and crew was of utmost importance to us. Here are some of the things we kept in mind.

Shooting with blanks

When the worst thing happens and someone dies on set, the impact resonates profoundly throughout the industry and the lives of those affected. Two big stories in the 1980s, in particular, changed how occupational health and safety is approached on sets.

In 1982, three actors – two of them children – were killed on the set of Twilight Zone, when special effects explosions caused a helicopter to crash. Their deaths will echo through film sets forever.

In 1984, the actor Jon-Erik Hexums put a gun filled with blanks to his head, and, joking about delays to filming, he pulled the trigger. The force of the wadding was enough to fatally injure him.

Instead of using a bullet, blanks use wads of paper, plastic, felt or cotton – this wadding ensures you get a certain level of flame out of the gun.

But this wadding is the thing that can cause a lot of injury: just because a gun is using blanks, that doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous.

An abundance of caution

For all elements of shooting a film, you have to sit and worry about all possible scenarios and have a plan for any risks, and the safety officer will work elbow to elbow with the director and first assistant director to ensure the safety of the set.

While scouting for locations, the safety officer will consider elements such as trip hazards, road safety, how the set will be lit at night and the supply of electricity.

When you are filming on public land, such as parks, the council will ask for a risk assessment: this can detail where people will park, where bathroom facilities will be located, where equipment will be, as well as considering potential problems like what would happen if a limb was to fall from a tree.

Even an actor carrying a cup of hot coffee on screen will be considered for safety.

Filming this year, we also added an on-set nurse/COVID officer to consider the health of everyone on set.

When a scene is set, the safety officer will check everything, down to the safety mats on the ground to the gel padding hidden by costumes.

On film sets, guns are supplied by an armorer. They will have access to both real and replica weapons, with real weapons costing more to hire than replicas.

Any moment you are using weapons on set, you must treat them with the utmost respect. Safety has to be paramount. In Australia, guns are so rarely handled we found they are highly respected: people are very conscious of the weapon.

All of the protocols surrounding gun use are well established. Everything on set around a gun must be treated with an abundance of caution. The weapon with the blank was never fired at anyone, all cast and crew are briefed multiple times about safety. The police are always notified, as are any neighbors adjacent to the filming location.

A tragedy

We chose to shoot with real weapons, but we only used blanks in one scene. In every other scene, visual effects (VFX) will be used.

The blanks were chosen because of the importance of the weapon to the storytelling in that scene. We needed the reflections on the actor’s face to be real, her physical response to be real. Like when Alan Rickman was dropped while shooting Die Hard: sometimes the moment just calls for that palpable truth.

But many gun effects can be done well through VFX, and companies even sell VFX gunfire packages. Adding these effects is a very specialized field: they can add different muzzle flares, different smoke patterns, and you can even make a gun recoil in someone’s hand.

Our sympathies go out to the families of those affected by this incident. We can only imagine what Alec Baldwin would be feeling right now. It is a horrendous situation for everyone involved.

This is an issue of workplace safety. When things go fatally wrong in any workplace, it is a tragedy.

In Australia, we have always found film to be a really well-regulated environment. On our set, we all understand making a movie is not worth putting someone’s life or health at risk.

We can only imagine most filmmakers feel the same.

Written by:

  • Christopher Gist – PhD Candidate, University of South Australia
  • Sarah Mayberry – Tutor, VCA, The University of Melbourne

This article was first published in The Conversation.The Conversation

6 Comments on "We’re Filmmakers Who Work With Firearms: This Is What’s Important in On-Set Safety"

  1. William Readling | October 27, 2021 at 9:55 pm | Reply

    I own firearms, and am very careful with them. I use a technique that would have prevented this accident.
    I never give a loaded firearm to anyone. I give it to them with the breech, or chamber open, and locked. I then give them the ammunition/loaded clip separately, and let them load it themselves. This way the person who receives the firearm can never misunderstand it’s status. They know when it is loaded, because they loaded it, and know what it is loaded with. Had my practice been followed, Baldwin would have seen that he did not have blanks. Presumably he can tell them apart.

  2. NO! This is pure Holywood greed — being too cheap to have a separate firearm with a special firing pin that only works on special “blank” casings with a different primer cap. This works because a blank does not need the same type or amount of propellant to accelerate a round. Further, the Hammer with the special pin would have a small green dot, which plainlt informes a shooter that they are safe to pretend for the camera. — I am a retired Hollywood insider, and speak from experience. They didn’t make any substantive changes after Brandon Lee on The Crow. It was all PR BS.

    • I can see how a conventional firearm could be modified to not fire a special blank round, say with a recessed primer. However, I’m having difficulty seeing how it would not fire a live round, because one of the design features is to make them very reliable. Do you have a link to something that describes in more detail how your proposal works? Would a green dot on the hammer have prevented him from killing the camera woman? It might have resulted in Baldwin being even more careless. He apparently isn’t a man that knows much about firearms.

  3. This article does not address the central issues of the New Mexico incident: that the fatality happened from a live round. Not a blank. Why was there live ammo on set? Why was live ammo allowed to mingle with the film “props”? Why are there rumors of crew members using the prop guns for target practice during downtime? And, having full knowledge that this practice was occurring on set, why did the gun pass through three pairs of hands without being checked once?

  4. What it comes down to is that Alec Baldwin was responsible for the gun in his hand and he did not check it. Now, if the scene called for him to put the gun to his head and pull the trigger, do you think he would have accepted someone else’s word that it was a cold gun? Or would he have checked it thoroughly, even shining a flashlight down the barrel, just to be positive it was empty before he pulled the trigger on himself?

    • I completely agree that the ultimate responsibility lies with the person holding the firearm and pulling the trigger. Since they were probably using period-correct revolvers, it would have taken Baldwin less than three seconds to unlatch the cylinder, swing it out, and verify that there were no cartridges loaded. He obviously didn’t bother to do it. Whether it was laziness, arrogance, or incompetence, that resulted in him taking the word of someone else, only he knows. The bottom line is that he was the one who pulled the trigger and killed someone! It wasn’t an “accident.” It was negligence.

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