Marty Hayes

by Marty Hayes, J.D.

Let’s talk about the Alec Baldwin incident, okay? As I write this, five days have passed, and new details of the incident are coming out every day. With that said, my commentary this month will be based upon what I have read up until now. If new details emerge that would substantively change my thoughts here, I will let you know next month.

The Incident

It appears that on a movie set, actors were portraying gunslingers in a good old-fashioned shoot’em up western. And in this particular incident, the fatal scene was apparently a scene where Baldwin was being filmed shooting directly towards the camera. But, for some unknown (at this time) reason, at least one if not more live rounds were in the gun instead of blanks. How could this have happened? 

I have heard reports which indicate that on breaks between filming sequences, one or more actors and/or movie personnel would hold shooting contests, using live ammunition in the guns that were being used as props. Then, supposedly the live ammo was unloaded from the guns and then blanks were used in the cylinders for the movie scenes.

Because movie actors are not typically experts in firearms and gun safety, the actors rely upon professional “gun handlers” to make sure that the proper type of cartridge (blanks) are loaded into the guns when filming. But to complicate matters, there are typically scenes where live ammo is used for filming bullet impacts into backstops, the ground, rocks, etc. So, the gun handlers need to be on their toes at all times. Rumor has it that there were some conflicts among the directors, gun handlers and perhaps other personnel but I am not sure exactly what these conflicts amounted to. There are also indications that prior to the incident in question, there had been accidental or inadvertent discharges on the set. In other words, overall, it appears to have been an unsafe environment, one which was begging for a tragic mishap to occur.

Who Is to Blame?

I have been following this on social media (I do not get broadcast TV) and most people place the blame solely upon the shoulders of Mr. Baldwin. Of course, most of my social media contacts are gun people, and are shouting about the Four Rules of Gun Safety. I am not going to argue that Baldwin does not shoulder blame for this occurrence, but as a professional firearms instructor with over 30 years of experiencing setting up mini scenarios where people point “guns” at others, I can absolutely understand how it occurred.

In the early '80s, when I was a rookie police officer in the academy learning the skills and tactics necessary to do the job, we almost had a fatality in training. We were practicing felony car stops. At that time, the safety protocols were such that an instructor would check your service revolver to make sure it was not loaded, and you would remove all your ammo from your belt. After that, the cadets pointed their guns at the other students and instructors throughout the scenarios.

It worked, as long as there was no breakdown of these safety protocols, but in one incident, an on-duty officer stopped by to watch the new cadets, and in his marked patrol car, was a loaded Remington 870. In the cars that had been sanitized it was fair game and pretty much part of the training that the passenger officer would grab the shotgun and use that superior weapon for his weapon as cover, and the driver would have his revolver out and be giving commands over the patrol car loudspeaker.

Well, unbeknownst to the instructors leading the scenarios, the on-duty officer stopped by to observe the cadets and his car was worked into rotation. Then, on one scene, a cadet grabbed the shotgun, racked the slide and was about to take up slack on the trigger, when his brain told him he had just put a round into the chamber. He had been an experienced bird hunter and had felt the status of the gun based on his experience. Without that experience, we would have had a dead officer.

If a fatality would have occurred, would it have been the cadet’s fault? I respectfully suggest not. Would the police department have been ultimately responsible for the death? I believe they would, as it was their overall responsibility to ensure a safe training environment.

That was 40 years ago. How about 25 years ago? I was running the Firearms Academy of Seattle, and we were teaching an advanced-level course for armed citizens. By that time, we were issuing all participants either “code eagle” paint marking guns, or inert dummy guns. At one time in the proceedings, one of our instructors had shown up to observe, and eventually he was asked to step in as a role-player. He agreed, and upon starting the exercise he yelled “Stop!” and confessed that he still had a loaded gun on. Yikes!

Who would have been responsible if the scenario had evolved into a fatal shooting? Being the owner and director of the academy then, I would have accepted that responsibility. Since then, we increased our safety protocols, to include frisking each student and instructor, and even “wanding” with a metal detector just to make sure. So yes, I do understand how Alec Baldwin shot two people on the movie set, killing one.

In addition to Baldwin, who may or may not be prosecuted, there are others who share culpability. Whoever had the ultimate responsibility for making sure the guns were loaded with blanks and not live ammunition certainly shares the blame. Additionally, the production company also shares the responsibility to use reasonable methods and take reasonable steps to ensure a safe production environment. Clearly this was a huge failure, especially given the reports of off time plinking with live ammo. I cannot imagine mixing live ammo and blanks on a movie set; it is a sure recipe for disaster.

I also assign some blame onto the shooting victims themselves. They allowed operable firearms to be fired in their direction, with the only safety protocol being someone else having supposedly checked the condition of the gun. I would never allow that, would you? I suspect there will be some real soul searching and major changes made by the directors and cinematographers before that is allowed again. Or maybe not. Profit is the driving factor when making movies, and I understand that if the costs of production exceed the revenue realized, movies would not be made.

In the grander scheme of things (the big picture if you will–pun intended) the movie industry needs to re-think how they use firearms in making movies. If I were chief honcho at the Screen Actors Guild, I would be consulting several firearms professionals to work on how the movie making industry could incorporate fool-proof firearms safety protocols to make sure this never happens again.

And lastly, who else is to blame? Well, if you are one of these folks that just loves a shoot’em up bang-bang movie, maybe you (and I) share just a sliver of blame for rewarding the movie industry with our dollars. After all, no dollars, no movies.

To read more of this month's journal, please click here.