Criminal charges should be filed in the tragic shooting death on a New Mexico film set. No question about it.
No one should ever die during the production of a movie. Yes, accidents happen, but not without mistakes that are so egregious that they rise to the level of criminal culpability. Even accidents causing an unintended death can be homicides under the law.
The sheriff investigating the case went even further when he said, “I wouldn’t call it an accident at all, it’s a criminal investigation.” He’s right.
The only questions unanswered at the moment are who exactly will be charged and for what crime? The crime part is easier to solve. When someone is killed because of reckless and grossly negligent conduct, that’s involuntary manslaughter —otherwise known as criminally negligent homicide. It’s the failure to exercise due care to ensure the safety of other people.
I’ll give you some examples. Driving a car at a ridiculously high rate of speed on a city street. Texting while driving. Leaving a heavy flower pot on a ledge above a busy sidewalk during heavy winds. Giving dangerous drugs to a friend.
These are all reckless acts that show a complete disregard for the safety of others. If someone dies as a direct consequence, it constitutes the crime of manslaughter. Sadly, one of the most common instances of manslaughter involves the mishandling of firearms.
That’s exactly what happened on the set of the movie “Rust” when actor Alec Baldwin was handed a gun by an assistant director who yelled “cold gun,” meaning that the weapon was not loaded with ammunition, including blanks. Sadly, a bullet was in the gun’s chamber. That was a deadly mistake preceded by a long list of wrongful acts by a variety of people.
As Baldwin was rehearsing a scene where he draws the gun from a holster it suddenly and unexpectedly fired a bullet that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza. It should never have happened.
Yet, it did happen because several people connected to the low-budget production made irresponsible and careless decisions that endangered the crew. The law must now hold them accountable.
But just who should be charged is a more difficult question.
To help answer it, let’s consider the relevant facts developed thus far:
—A young novice with scant training in the use of firearms was hired as the armorer on the set who is responsible for the handling of all guns. Identified as Hannah Gutierrez, she had admitted during a recent podcast that she was “still learning” and expressed doubt about her own competency;
—For the same job, the producers interviewed a highly trained and experienced licensed armorer but offered the position to Gutierrez instead. Why? Likely because she was cheaper. This suggests that the safety of the crew was sacrificed to save money.
—There was live round ammunition on or near the set. This should never have been allowed under any circumstances.
—There were two prior accidental gun discharges on the set of “Rust,” as well as numerous complaints about safety.
—There is compelling evidence that guns were not scrupulously checked, double-checked and properly secured during the production, in clear violation of safety standards in the industry.
—The gun that killed Hutchins was allegedly used for off-set target practice just hours before the fatal shooting. It is possible that a live round was left in the pistol that was handed to Baldwin.
—The assistant director, Dave Halls, who handed the actor the weapon admitted to law enforcement that he failed to fully check the firearm even though he declared it a “cold gun.”
—The same assistant director was fired from another movie set due to an accidental shooting that injured a crew member. On a different film project he was the subject of a complaint involving gun safety.
Based on these known facts, Gutierrez and Halls are the most at risk of being criminally charged. What about Baldwin? A criminal indictment against him cannot be ruled out, although it is less likely.
Let’s not forget that Baldwin is a veteran actor. Why didn’t he check the gun himself before using it? Did he watch someone else check the gun before he took possession of it, as he should have?
Actors are required to follow strict rules issued by the union representing them, known as Actors’ Equity Association. These rules state that when firearms are used on set, the actor handling the gun must first be trained in its safe use. Here is the most important part:
“Treat all guns as if they are loaded and deadly. Check the firearm every time you take possession of it. Before each use, make sure the gun has been test fired off stage and then ask to test fire it yourself.”
It does not appear that Baldwin followed his union’s safety rules. They also state that he must actually watch the armorer or prop master check the cylinders and barrel to make sure there is no bullet inside. There is no evidence this was done.
But Baldwin was not just an actor relying on the mistaken assurances of the assistant director who gave him the gun. Baldwin willingly assumed greater authority for the production as the on-location producer. This added responsibility carries with it an increased duty to ensure the safety of the film crew.
An argument can be made that Baldwin was running an out-of-control and reckless set. Both the armorer and the assistant director should never have been hired, given their respective track records. But that’s not all.
The earlier gun mishaps on the set would put a cautious producer on notice that there was serious danger afoot and that lives might be in jeopardy. Yet, it appears that little effort was made to investigate what happened. The production should have been shutdown until corrective action was taken.
Did Baldwin not hear crew members shooting real bullets during target practice? Did he fail to institute and enforce rules that forbid the presence of live rounds anywhere near the set? If not, why not? These are common-sense steps that a reasonably prudent producer would take to protect employees.
Hutchins’ death was both foreseeable and preventable. She would be alive today but for the reckless and grossly negligent acts of others. Those acts constitute crimes.
Joining me on “The Brief” is Dr. John Lott, Jr. who is well versed on guns and gun safety. He is President of the Crime Prevention Research Center and wrote the book, “More Guns, Less Crime.” He’s also an economist who served in the Trump administration and has held academic positions at several prestigious Universities. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from UCLA.