California and NY Seek to Ban Live Ammo on Sets as the Industry Declines to Ban Real Guns

All those industry calls and letters to get functional guns off movie sets? Turns out, Hollywood isn't really interested in that.
Candles are placed around signs to honor cinematographer Halyna Hutchins during a candlelight vigil in Albuquerque, N.M., Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. Hutchins died on Thursday after she was fatally shot by actor Alec Baldwin with a prop gun on a New Mexico film set. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Signs promoting production safety at a vigil honoring Halyna Hutchins in New Mexico in October.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Following the fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the New Mexico set of “Rust” in October, lawmakers in California and New York have introduced a pair of bills they say would help prevent similar tragedies from happening in their states. The bills would prohibit the use of live ammunition on most movie and TV sets in two of the country’s largest production hubs, implement stiff penalties for those who ignore the ban, and codify weapons-handling requirements.

While the proposals mark a move forward in the effort to increase on-set safety, they fall short of an outright prohibition on functional guns. Support for a ban grew immediately following Hutchins’ death, but that consensus didn’t hold.

In the days after “Rust” actor and producer Alec Baldwin fatally shot Hutchins with a prop gun that he and key crew members believed was not loaded, a petition calling for a ban on functional firearms drew thousands of signatures. California State Senator Dave Cortese proclaimed he planned to introduce a bill that banned live ammo and functional guns from set. “The Boys” showrunner Eric Kripke and “The Rookie” showrunner Alexi Hawley created similar policies for their shows.

An open letter signed by 214 cinematographers and other industry professionals included a vow to not work on projects that use functional firearms. “We are calling for immediate action from our union leadership, our producers and our lawmakers to affect unified change on our behalf: Ban all functional firearms on set,” reads the letter.

Nearly four months later, several of those who signed the cinematographers’ letter did not return requests for comment. Kripke declined an interview request through a representative and Hawley did not respond.

As Cortese’s proposal made headlines in October, New York State Senator Kevin Thomas also introduced a bill that received far less press attention. Senate Bill S7477 suggests that less than a week after Hutchins’ death, there was little interest among the industry’s most influential leaders for a government ban on real firearms. If signed into law, the bill would prohibit live ammunition from production. On those productions that use blanks, cast and crew would be required to receive training from state police.

In an interview with IndieWire, Thomas suggested said he crafted his bill after discussing the matter with union and studio leaders. Asked why he declined to include a ban on real firearms, Thomas said he had “conversations with the studios” where leaders discussed their existing safety practices and their desire to maintain the use of blanks. “[With Senate Bill S7477] there isn’t going to be a way the studios can deviate from that,” he said. “We can’t just leave industry to regulate itself.”

Cortese, who introduced California’s bill earlier this month, also said that he found limited industry interest in gun bans. “There seems to be a consensus both on the production side, management side, as well as the union side, that there are occasions where they still use blanks, and when they come up they need that capability,” said Cortese, a Silicon Valley Democrat who serves as chair of the Senate Labor Committee.

“If somebody came back, the unions or the industry, and said, ‘You know, it’s not really worth the risk with blanks,’ if the attitude starts to shift, I’m telling you as the author, I’ll amend that right back into the bill,” he said. “But it’s not worth losing the bill over the issue of blanks.”

IndieWire reached out to unions and studios with questions about their stances on the bills and conversations with lawmakers. A representative for IATSE, of which Hutchins was a member, did not respond. Neither did reps for Disney, ViacomCBS, and NBCUniversal. Netflix and WarnerMedia declined to comment.

A SAG-AFTRA spokesperson offered this statement: “We have engaged in intense dialogue about these proposals with our fellow unions in CA and NY, and with our industry employers. The safety of our members and all those who work on film and television sets is of the utmost importance to us. The dialogue is ongoing because we all want to get this right.”

And a DGA spokesperson offered this: “A tragedy like the one that occurred on the set of ‘Rust’ should never happen again. It has exposed that on too many sets, safety matters are not prioritized enough. Our Guild is dedicating time and attention to these critical issues, as we examine structural changes that will have a real and immediate impact — from legislation, to additional safety practices on sets.”

Stephen Lighthill, one of the signatories of the cinematographers’ letter and president of the American Society of Cinematographers, said he views his organization as a facilitator of a wider conversation about safety and working conditions. Among ASC’s first initiatives is an online safety panel set for early next month and a plan to convene its Future Practices Committee with a mission to build consensus on safety-related topics, including guns.

“Initial reactions are always good,” he said. “I think from our point of view, we want to keep the conversation going. We recognize that there are shows or movies that can readily find alternatives to functional weapons on set. I think there’s a general consensus, now that the conversations have gone on for a while, that any kind of overall ban is not a good idea.”

The ASC’s magazine in January published a feature about Hutchins that included several voices weighing in on how the industry should honor her memory through a focus on safety. Future Practices co-chairs Amelia Vincent and Erik Messerschmidt wrote they are confident that the business can “curtail or even completely eliminate” functional guns in production, adding “we need to exercise caution when calling for additional or unilateral regulations, while not also focusing attention on those who failed to act responsibly and against existing protocols.”

Lighthill said he hopes to honor Hutchins’ memory by helping lead the charge to make systemic changes in the business. He pointed out the industry doesn’t lack for clear rules about handling guns. The investigation into the “Rust” shooting is ongoing, but the presence of live ammunition on the set suggests that those rules were not followed.

“What I think is lacking is rock-solid ways to communicate to the right people that something is dangerous and needs to be changed,” he said. “Crews and cinematographers have a loyalty to a director which could make discussing safety problems an issue. If there’s any weakness that we all are aware of, it’s that many people on set are worried about retribution. We have to find a way to discuss that.”

In Cortese’s bill, much of the language of the California proposal is lifted from the gun-safety bulletins from the studios’ Contract Services. Court documents and reports suggest those rules may not have been followed, as crew members raised alarm bells about the presence of live ammunition and safety lapses in the days before Hutchins’ was killed.

FILE - A musician plays a violin behind a photograph of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins during a vigil in her honor in Albuquerque, N.M., Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. Hutchins was fatally shot on Thursday, Oct. 21, after an assistant director unwittingly handed actor Alec Baldwin a loaded weapon and told him it was safe to use on the set of a Western filmed in Santa Fe, N.M. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton, File)
A photo of Halyna Hutchins displayed during an October vigil in New MexicoAP Photo/Andres Leighton

“The employers oftentimes have the upper hand over employees in terms of workforce safety,” Cortese said. “Employers saying ‘Ignore the live ammunition on set’ — what can you do about that today? After the bill is law, it essentially allows a whistleblower access to somebody in state government to respond to it.”

As written, the bill would allow state officials to fine producers or shut down a set found to be breaking the rules, which also implement training requirements and the presence of a qualified armorer. The bill would allow the use of live ammunition in some cases, such as televised Olympics shooting events or similar sporting series.

Having production firearm safety rules enshrined in law could also eliminate the variability in gun-handling practices. Baldwin’s December interview with ABC News included an audio clip of George Clooney saying he always checks guns himself when he’s on set. But that’s not something Baldwin did on “Rust” — he said he relied on assurances from crew that the gun was not loaded. He added that he avoids checking as a matter of practice, citing “someone” who taught him how to handle guns years ago.

One set of rules enforced by law is also baked in to the New York bill, which instructs state police to craft training practices. A violation would be a felony charge.

For Bandar Albuliwi, who authored that first gun-ban petition, neither bill is adequate. He’s continuing to fight for an overall ban on the use of real guns on set. And he wants those in the business who agree with him to make noise in an effort to get bans in place across the country.

“We have to change the whole culture of firearms in America, and it begins with Hollywood,” he said. “Since these states have basically decided to succumb to Hollywood, then I’m going to try to get legislation proposed on the federal level.”

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