'No reason whatsoever' to have live ammunition on set

Canadian armourers shocked and saddened by 'Rust' tragedy and say it's clear corners were cut by production

'No reason whatsoever' to have live ammunition on set

There is "no reason whatsoever" to have live ammunition on a movie set, according to a Toronto-based head armourer.

Charles Taylor, of Movie Armaments Group (MAG), spoke to COS after the tragic death last week of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of movie “Rust” after actor Alec Baldwin discharged a revolver during a scene rehearsal. The film’s director, Joel Souza, was also injured.

Vancouver, B.C.-based Jon Funk, film armourer, Mantis Enterprise was equally forthright and said incidents like this happen when production wants to cut corners and save money. “Money should never be the deciding factor in health and safety,” he said.

Film sets should be safe places to work, but there are dangers and things can go wrong if somebody is not following instructions or protocols, added Funk, who is also a stunt coordinator and special effects technician.

On the day of the incident, Baldwin was handed the firearm – a revolver – by assistant director Dave Halls and told it was a “cold gun” (not loaded with live ammunition and thus safe to use). It transpired after that this was not the case, and that the revolver had a round in it.

Baldwin was rehearsing a scene with Hutchins and Souza when the gun was discharged.

Since the incident, the spotlight has fallen on Halls – who had previously been the subject of a safety complaint in 2019 – and set armourer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed.

In an affidavit filed by Santa Fe’s sheriff’s department, Gutierrez Reed said that she had checked guns on set but found no “hot rounds” before the shooting.

Yesterday, law enforcement officials confirmed that they had recovered the firearm believed to have killed Hutchins. Live bullets, including the round that potentially killed Hutchins, have been recovered from the set.

A police investigation into the incident is ongoing, no criminal charges have been filed as of yet.

“We’re all shocked and saddened at how this thing could possibly even have happened. Because of the way we do things, it’s not possible – there has to be some other factors involved. And sure enough, there was live ammunition. That’s the key factor, and the fact that we had inexperienced people handling guns and not following the rules,” says Taylor.

Safety culture

In Canada, live ammunition is broadly prohibited on film and TV sets.

“It makes sense, because really there is no reason whatsoever to have live ammunition on a movie set. There just isn’t. There’s no need for it,” says Taylor.

Firearm safety is generally a serious matter on film sets – leading armourers in the industry to wonder how the Baldwin incident could even have happened. The inherent danger of firearms means that there are a hefty number of stringent protocols in place so that incidents like this do not happen.

And broadly they don’t, which is why the “Rust” shooting is gaining so much media and industry traction.

The last time a similar incident happened was in 1993, when actor Brandon Lee was killed by a “squib load” fired by a prop gun on the set of the movie “The Crow”.

Lee’s death brought about a number of changes in the way firearms were handled on sets.

And though currently there are already so many strict protocols in place, the Baldwin incident may push for even stricter firearm protocols.

Taylor says that though some industry folk may be wary after this event of using firearms on set, the reality of the film and TV industry is that for some types of movies guns on set are inevitable.

“I still see guns being a part [of the industry], I just see them being less so for a while until everybody clearly understands and wraps their head around what has happened,” he says.

Taylor says that there are so many steps in place to ensure the “big choreography of action that happens on a daily basis on film sets. And that’s the way we’ve worked for many years. Other than banning guns on set I don’t see what more we could do to mitigate the disasters like the one we had just last week.”

The reason why incidents like the one in New Mexico rarely happen, says Funk, is because generally armourers are very good at what they do. Unless something bad happens, you won’t hear about them because know who to pull it off and get it right.

Chain of command

So how exactly is set safety organized?

Broadly, Taylor says that at the top of the chain is the Head or Master Armourer. Immediately below is the Key Armourer, the Head’s second in command. Their responsibilities include making sure that all the other armourers have the appropriate information when dealing with film production (firearms details, which characters are using what, rates, etc.). Then there are Lead Armourers.

It is the Key and Lead Armourer’s job to establish who will be working on what set, what day and what timing.

After there are General Armourers who are picked by the Head, Key or Lead Armourer to work on set.

Their responsibilities are to ensure that all relevant parties have the information required and are in constant communication, “ensuring that there is an open dialogue of safety between the Director, the Assistant Director, the producers, the crew, etc.,” says Taylor.

Armourers in the movie industry come from a wide variety of backgrounds: Emergency task force officers, bomb squad officers, policemen, military personnel, British Royal Marines, etc.

“They all have extensive firearms instruction, and some of them are instructors themselves for law enforcement. So we bring that as a basis of understanding of firearms for anybody that handles a firearm on set,” says Taylor. “We don’t bring anybody in that is not qualified to be there unless we give them extensive training because they get to handle a firearm on a movie set.”

On a normal day, the guns are pulled in the morning or the day before to see what needs to go to a set, and a run sheet is made. The sheet states each gun’s serial number, certificate, and registration certificate number. Three copies of the sheet are made.

“An armourer’s responsibility in Canada is not only what happens on set,” says Funk, they are also responsible for transportation on and off set.

“We always know what’s left the building, and it goes with the armourers. We know which armourer the guns went with. And when [the guns] are on set, [the armourers] secure then all,” says Taylor.

Records are kept – mostly by photo – of any performer (background, stunt, etc.) who gets a weapon on a certain day for a certain scene. The performer comes to the armourer’s table, where they are shown the gun empty and safe.

If there are a lot of firearms, Taylor says that they get a copy of people’s identification.

This is essential, because it is possible to have background performers that are actually legally barred from even possessing a firearm.

Once the scene is over, the weapons are secured:

“Nobody goes anywhere until we have all the weapons back, and we have a ledger to be able to see if anything is missing.

Our [gun] licenses require our arms to be in our immediate care and control at all times, they’re never left to be unattended,” says Taylor.

At the end of a filming day, Taylor says that all of MAG’s firearms go back to the armory every day – it doesn’t matter where they’re filming.

On his end, at the start of the day, Funk says: “I will do my first gun check to make sure that there are no particles in the barrel and just making sure that the gun is clear and safe. That is why this incident in New Mexico is so troubling is that there’s never meant to be live rounds on a film set, period.”

Funk describes an extensive protocol where every aspect of safety is accounted for. Constant communication is key, no equipment is ever left unattended.

He also works with performers to make sure that they are safely handling the equipment:

“I like to work with the actors, so they know what to expect, and they know how to react when they fire a gun.”

Guideline 39

Taylor worked with the Toronto Police Service, the film commission in Toronto and the Ministry of Labour to help draft guideline number 39: Firearms Safety Guideline for the Film and Television Industry in Ontario.

Issued in 1990, the guideline was revised in 2016.

This guideline was put out by the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development in Ontario for firearms on movie sets.

Taylor says that Ontario-based MAG follows these guidelines in addition to their own, “which go over and above those guidelines with respect to how we train our people and their roles and responsibilities – and first of all, with firearm safety.”

His company follows safety procedures not only provided by the RCMP and the Canadian Firearm Safety Course but they also have their own in-house safety policy.

In Canada, the police are very involved in on-set firearm safety.

The RCMP are the body that institute the Firearms Registry, as per the Firearms Act, and the Chief Provincial Firearms Officer (CFO) is the person who issues armourer’s licenses.

The Firearms Act also governs the special authority to possess or manufacture replicas which, even if they are props, require a license.

Details may vary as regulations depend on each province’s legislation.

There is no formal course to becoming an armourer, though Funk says that in his opinion there should be:

“I’d like to see something like that in place […] There’s way more to armouring than just handling firearms. You have to help people, actors, learn how to handle it safely. It’s a pretty big responsibly of you.”

Ultimately, though there are certainly areas of improvement, firearm safety in the film industry is typically top shelf. The tragedy that occurred on the “Rust” set last week is not indicative of the industry but seems to be an example of everything that should not be done.

Speaking of the Baldwin incident and the extensive protocols MAG has in place, Taylor says:

“If any of all of those protocols or parameters were followed, that event would never happen. And these are all just basic standard safety protocols that we go by.”