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Hollywood Armorer Reacts to ‘Rust’ Manslaughter Charges: ‘There Is So Much Fault to Go Around’

Rust Movie Set Shooting Accident
AFP via Getty Images

The death of Halyna Hutchins on the set of “Rust” in 2021 has special significance for Hollywood’s small community of film armorers. Like a lot of entertainment industry jobs, armorers occupy a highly specialized niche. It’s not the kind of thing you can go to school for, and there are no state certifications or license exams to pass. Getting into the profession tends to involve a combination of apprenticeship and old fashioned, right-place-right-time industry luck.

On Thursday, New Mexico prosecutors announced that they will bring involuntary manslaughter charges against both Alec Baldwin — who fired the shot that killed Hutchins — and Hannah Gutierrez Reed, the film armorer who loaded his gun with a single live round. They also announced that David Halls, the first assistant director who handed the gun to Baldwin, has agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge and to testify against Gutierrez Reed and Baldwin.

Variety spoke with Dutch Merrick about what it means to know that armorers can be held criminally responsible for an on-set death. Merrick, an armorer and prop master and a former president of IATSE Local 44, launched Prop Gun Safety LLC in the wake of Hutchins’ death last year. He offers training on safe gun handling on sets and has become a go-to expert for the media on set safety issues.

Merrick argues that many things had to go wrong for the “Rust” accident to happen, and that responsibility is shared among a broader group than the three who were charged. “There is so much fault to go around on this,” he said.

What’s been the reaction in the armorer community?

I’ve talked to several of my peers in the industry and there’s a lot of surprise about these charges. Many of us felt if they’re going to charge anybody, it should be broader and include the producers for their hiring practices, their lack of safety standards. And of the key players involved, obviously, Alec Baldwin is the most visible because he was holding the gun when someone was killed. But the food chain running all the way back, when you go to the armorer, the prop master and particularly the provider of live ammunition for a film set, which is unconscionable and unheard of in our history. I’ve talked to dozens of armorers; no one’s ever heard of anything like someone sending live ammo masked as dummy rounds on set. It just shocked the heck out of all of us.

Do you feel like there’s any wider implications as far as the idea that there’s real criminal liability here, especially the armorer?

Well, for both of them. For Alec Baldwin, it could show up in other actors in being unwilling to use firearms in a scene — and wrongfully so, because we’ve done this craft for 130 years. It’s proven technology and when a qualified armorer blocks out a scene, we know that it is safe. We do gun battles with 20, 30 people firing at one time during a take. It’s something that we have down pat. So this show, where they hire very inexperienced novices — really, beginners — to handle something that safety-oriented was one of the first big zingers that occurs to many of us.

And as far as the armorer being prosecuted for this: It’s clear that there was some negligence. Was it the fact that she was multitasking when she checked around and she walked into the church, and she shook it while her radio chatter was loud and she thought she heard the BB, but she didn’t? And then she gave the gun to the first AD, for God’s sakes. You don’t do that. A first AD should never have inserted himself in this process. He should observe it as a second set of eyes for safety, but he should never insert himself as part of the handoff process, and he made himself the stand-in. He sat in the pew, holding the gun and had the armorer leave, apparently. And then when Alec Baldwin came in, here is the first AD not rechecking the gun himself, partly because it’s not his job, but he is calling it out as a cold or a safe gun and handing it to Alec Baldwin, who has put his faith and the crew around him for 40 years for his safety, that has done well by him. This time it didn’t. He didn’t catch the fact that it was the first AD saying it’s cold and there’s no armorer in the room at the time.

And ultimately, he did break the three cardinal rules of handling a gun on a film set. You always point it in a safe direction, and you’ve got to define what safe is. You always keep your finger off the trigger, which according to the pre-rehearsal roll they did before lunch, his finger was on the trigger in that instance. And then lastly, you always treat the gun as if it’s loaded. And if that were the case, when those people decided to stand in front of him lined up, four people, he hopefully would have had the good sense to say, “Excuse me, folks, you just move out of the line of sight of this gun.” Even though he knew it was safe, and it was just blank or empty in that instance. There is so much fault to go around on this.

Is there any concern in your community about this having any kind of chilling effect on your ability to do your job, you know, as far as insurance or especially for smaller independent productions? Or do you see this as a sort of isolated thing?

This is truly an anomaly. The whole incident from top to bottom was filled with so many failures, and it was really the perfect storm of a combination of things it took to do this. An analogy that a friend of mine who’s a former prop master and now an attorney gave me when he read what had happened, is he said that it’s like Mr. Gower — the character in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the pharmacist — who was distraught and he prepared a concoction for a customer that was poisonous. And George Bailey caught the error midstream and made sure it wasn’t delivered to the lady so that she didn’t die. Who was the George Bailey in this scenario? If qualified people had followed their normal procedures — and that’s the prop master and or prop assistant and certainly the armorer and the AD — any of those characters right in line, this wouldn’t have happened. But you trail it all the way back to who is the knucklehead that sent live ammunition in a box marked dummies to a film set? They had migrated even into Alec Baldwin’s own bandoliers — his own gun belt. There was a live round in there and scattered about the set on different carts and boxes. Lunacy.

So I think the armors in general feel that this is such an anomaly that it’s not going to have a permanent impact on things like insurance or liability. Then, too, remember that the case has not gone to trial, so she hasn’t been convicted of it. So we’ll see what that is. That may be a game-changer.

I’m really surprised that Dave Halls got away with a plea bargain after literally inserting himself and telling the actor it’s safe. He handed him a loaded weapon. He didn’t know it, but that’s no excuse. He implied that it had been checked, but it clearly had not been checked by him as a second set of eyes. So I think he has a lot more culpability than he’s getting.

And I want to know, the district attorney, someone asked her this morning, where did the rounds come from? And her answer was that that was a red herring and it wasn’t as important as the rest of this. Well, I think the armors and prop masters and actors and producers and all of Hollywood would disagree, and say it’s pretty important that we find out how live rounds migrated onto a film set so that that never happens again.

Can I offer one more observation?

Please do.

What we do as armorers is inherently safe when we follow the procedures, the established procedures of the industry. I’ve choreographed major scenes with a dozen people firing guns in various directions at one time, and we carefully block it out and we adjust the guns — is it full flash or half flash? Where are they pointing? How close are they to the camera? And through all these mechanisms, we’re able to create real Hollywood magic.

Let me put it to you this way. The role of a prop master and armorer is to create as realistic an environment as possible, so that the actor can fully immerse themselves in that world and be another person entirely. The actor acting in a role is not being themselves. They’re being another person in another place and time. So we helped shape and craft that arena for them to play fully while at the same time making it safe.

So if we hand them a shiny, deadly looking dagger or a time bomb, or even a salmon sandwich that hasn’t turned — because literally when we hand food to an actor, we’re putting them at risk — we need to make sure that everything we put into their environment is safe for them.

So many balls were dropped here. And I think a lot of it boils down to the producers. They ignored pleas for safety. I read the letter by Lane Luper the day before they walked off, the day before the tragedy, talking about lax gun handling, you know, accidental discharges and lax COVID compliance and the turnaround. He was working 14-hour days plus having to get there for pre-call and then wrap out and then having an hour drive each way to home. He was getting five or six hours of sleep a night and that is more and more common in Hollywood now. With longer shooting days, the higher demands of hungrier consumers of media. And so we’re trying to crank out more and more material in a shorter period of time. And I would offer that it’s literally killing us crew.