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As ‘Rust’ Trial Nears, Film Armorers See a Changed Landscape

Hannah Gutierrez Reed is scheduled to face a manslaughter trial in two weeks, becoming one of only a handful of people ever tried for an accident on a film set.

The case against her is relatively straightforward. She was responsible for safe handling of guns on “Rust,” the Western starring Alec Baldwin. She loaded a live bullet into Baldwin’s gun. As a result, Halyna Hutchins, the cinematographer, was killed.

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“The primary goal of an armorer is to ensure that no one is injured by a prop gun,” wrote the prosecutor, Kari Morrissey, in a recent court filing. “Obviously, Ms. Gutierrez failed to ensure that the gun handed to Alec Baldwin was loaded solely with dummy rounds.”

The defense will have to persuade the jury that it’s more complicated than that. Her team is expected to argue that she has been made into a scapegoat for the mistakes of others — including the production team, the man who supplied the ammunition and Baldwin himself.

Film armorers — who have been under a spotlight since the October 2021 accident — will be watching closely.

“I think there’s agreement that she holds a great deal of culpability. But she isn’t the lone character in this play,” says armorer Dutch Merrick, who teaches a gun safety course for film crews. “If other people had been doing their jobs properly, Halyna would still be alive.”

To make their cases, the prosecution and the defense are expected to call competing experts on industry safety practices, which are a mix of common wisdom and written protocols.

In the wake of the “Twilight Zone: The Movie” accident in 1982, in which three actors were killed, a labor-management committee was formed to issue dozens of safety rules. The rules for guns — Safety Bulletins 1 and 2 — entrust the armorer with responsibility for loading and checking firearms and ban the use of live ammunition, except in the rarest circumstances.

At the time of the “Rust” shooting, the rules didn’t reference dummy rounds or require any particular training. Since then, California has passed a law that mandates armorer training, which will take effect next January. And in December, the labor-management committee revised the bulletins to address dummy rounds.

There are several types of dummies. Some have a hole on the side. Some have depressed primer. Some have a BB inside and rattle when shaken. Gutierrez Reed had a mix of dummies on “Rust.” The new rule attempts to standardize the ones with the BB.

“It’s like how the aviation industry works,” says Tobey Bays, business agent of IATSE Local 44, which represents prop masters and armorers. “Any time you have an accident, you want to make sure you do everything you can to prevent that from happening again.”

After Hutchins was killed, some productions started using fake guns with muzzle flashes added in post, instead of more realistic-looking blank-firing weapons.

“Many shows are not using real guns at all,” says John Navarro, the armorer on “Killers of the Flower Moon.” “They’re just using CG for everything. They feel like they don’t need an armorer anymore because they’re not shooting anything.”

Some gun aficionados say that detracts from the authenticity of a show.

“I can definitely tell,” says Kyle Petersen of Western Stage Props. “CGI guns just don’t look real. Anyone who knows anything about firearms knows that’s not realistic.”

Gregg Bilson, president of ISS Group, says shows were moving away from real guns even before “Rust,” thanks to CGI advances. His company supplies real and fake guns — and makes more profit on the rubber ones, which he says can look just fine.

“Certain projects just mandate that real guns are used,” Bilson says. “Other shows, you can get away with Airsofts.”

Many armorers feel that the reluctance to use real guns betrays a misunderstanding of the risks.

“This incident in ‘Rust’ is a statistical anomaly,” Merrick says. “It’s one in a jillion. This one anomaly shouldn’t be enough to give us a black mark for our craft.”

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