Guns and Gear

HOOBER: How Gun Accidents Happen On Movie Sets

(Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb)

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By Sam Hoober

As basically everyone is aware by now, actor Alec Baldwin was involved in an on-set accident that resulted in the death of one of the crew members. Cinematographer Haylna Hutchins was killed, and director Joel Souza was injured.

Now, we’re going to go over what likely happened based on past events – i.e., the accident that killed Brandon Lee – but what the real takeaway here has nothing to do with the movies, and everything to do with one of the most dangerous things in the world.

Namely, complacency.

Unless evidence arises to the contrary, it is almost certainly what got this poor woman killed. It’s what produces negligent discharges and indeed most accidental shootings.

What we know about the accident in New Mexico is limited, but it would appear that either live ammunition was left in the gun, or the cinematographer was close enough to be killed by a blank, or there was something like a repeat of the circumstances that led to the death of Brandon Lee.

For those who don’t remember or weren’t born yet, Brandon Lee – son of martial arts icon Bruce Lee – was filming “The Crow,” a movie about a murdered rock musician who comes back from the dead with a crow as his familiar of sorts, and takes his revenge.

Sure, it’s “High Plains Drifter” with wardrobe by Hot Topic, but it’s still a pretty decent flick and the soundtrack is banging, but so much for that.

In a scene where he’s shot by one of the men who murdered him and his fiancé, a character shoots Brandon Lee’s character with a revolver, which was incidentally a S&W Model 29. Lee slumped over, and by the time they figured out he wasn’t acting it was basically too late, and Lee was pronounced dead in surgery several hours later.

In the investigation, the cause was revealed to be several-fold.

First, the gun had been loaded with dummy cartridges so the gun could be loaded with ammunition that appeared real. The reason is so when you show the gun in the scene, you see rounds in the cylinder.

However, the dummy cartridges that were used on-set had live primers. The gun was fired in a previous scene, which detonated the primer and sent the bullet into the barrel, creating a squib (a bullet stuck in the barrel) and the gun ostensibly wasn’t checked between takes.

Later, the dummy rounds were exchanged for blanks. When actor Michael Massee shot Lee with the blank, the blank cartridge propelled the bullet out of the barrel and into Brandon Lee, killing him.

The accident was made possible when dummy rounds with live primers were used, creating the squib. When the gun wasn’t checked for obstructions, which created the conditions that led to Lee’s death.

Most prop guns are either never loaded with actual live ammunition (which is normally not allowed on movie sets anyway) and a lot of prop guns also have the barrel welded shut to prevent accidents like these from happening. However, if there’s enough of a powder charge in a primer or a blank, the barrel obstruction can be blown through the barrel or propel a dummy cartridge through the barrel.

It’s worth noting that the powder charge in blank cartridges is enough to produce fatal blunt-force trauma.

So what’s the takeaway here?

Well, it’s certainly true that a lot of ink has already been spilled about this already, and there will probably be some changes to SOPs for film armories and props.

A woman is dead, leaving behind her husband and child, and Alec Baldwin has to live with pulling the trigger. Whatever one’s thoughts about him are for whatever reason, this is not something that anyone deserves to be saddled with, even if he was in “The Shadow” and “Mercury Rising.”

Celebrity gossip aside, the key takeaway here is the danger of complacency when it comes to gun safety.

Here we have an instance on a movie set where someone somewhere failed to ensure that firearms were handled and operated safely. The reasons why aren’t fully known. But what’s almost certain to be the cause is that someone somewhere said “eh, it’s no big deal” or didn’t verify that conditions were safe. And it cost someone their life.

That is also what happens when a toddler finds a gun. Or doesn’t check to see if a Glock is loaded before field-stripping. Or when someone puts a gun in a purse or backpack and forgets about it, leading to accidents.

So the takeaway here is a reminder that complacency kills. The newbie to guns, shooting, concealed carry needs to know this. The more experienced shooter knows it, but it never hurts to be reminded from time to time.

Sam Hoober is a hunter and shooter based in the Inland Northwest.