Why Hollywood Can’t Quit Guns

How the industry moved on from the deadly Rust shooting

An animated film slate attached to a gun; when the slate claps, a bullet flies out
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

For more than 30 years, Bill Davis’s job has been to help famous people look like they know what they’re doing with a gun. As an armorer working in Hollywood, Davis teaches movie stars how to properly handle firearms, and some are fast learners: He helped train Tom Cruise on the set of the film Collateral and walked away impressed with the actor’s form. Others require a little more instruction; Davis said he once had to scold Danny Glover for pulling the trigger too early during a scene in Saw.

But sometimes, no amount of coaching helps. There’s an actor—and no, Davis won’t name this one—who Davis says has shot him accidentally (and absent-mindedly) four different times on the set of four different films. When Davis works with a performer, he always tries to ensure that the star is listening, to go over safety protocols, and to repeat warnings about the dangers of prop guns, because even blanks can harm when fired in close proximity. But still, with this actor? Bang. Eventually, Davis started wearing a thick synthetic belly around his waist whenever he knew they’d be working together. He had accepted that he just couldn’t avoid some occupational hazards. “When I hand [an actor] the gun, it is literally out of my hands,” he told me over the phone in January. “I’ve gone from being proactive to reactive, and the best I can do is try to get in there before they shoot themselves.”

The question of what is “the best” that armorers such as Davis can do has come under intense scrutiny recently. Last October, Hollywood was shaken by the death of the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the low-budget Western Rust. She had been fatally struck by a live round accidentally fired from a prop gun, a situation that felt all too similar to another tragedy that had occurred in 1993, when the actor Brandon Lee was shot and killed on the set of The Crow. There are reams of rules and best practices when it comes to on-set gun safety, and the typical thinking is that if armorers do their job and everyone follows their instructions, there is nothing to worry about. But as Davis’s experience suggests, in practice the margin for error is wide—a reality that many directors, producers, and celebrities seemed to acknowledge when they began calling for stronger firearm-safety measures after Hutchins’s death.

Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. “The Rock,” vowed that only rubber guns would be used on projects from his production company. The director Rian Johnson tweeted in support of using visual effects to illustrate gunplay in his films. A petition that received more than 100,000 signatures online prompted a response from a California state lawmaker who proposed a bill to “ban live ammunition and firearms that are capable of firing live ammunition” from movie and TV productions. But in the ensuing months, momentum slowed. The lawmaker walked back his bill proposal, saying that real guns, including those that fire blanks, should continue to be allowed on some sets after all. Members of the industry who had publicly pledged to limit the use of guns on sets have since quieted (both Dwayne Johnson and Rian Johnson declined The Atlantic’s requests for further comment on their statements). Rust remains in the headlines, but mostly for the litany of lawsuits in progress.

“This is déjà vu,” says Bridget Baiss, the author of The Crow: The Story Behind the Film, a book on the 1993 shooting and its legacy. To her, the aftermath of Rust mirrors that of The Crow: An investigation is opened, legal battles are waged, and notable figures call for tougher rules to prevent a horrific pattern from forming—but nothing changes enough to guarantee safer sets in the future. The fading conversation isn’t just proof that meaningful reform is immensely hard to enact in the movie and TV business, even when lives are at stake. It’s also a stark reminder that Hollywood, despite being the biggest producer of filmed entertainment in the world, is ultimately a reflection of American values.

In the most heavily armed country, the presence of guns isn’t considered out of the ordinary, especially in states with open-carry laws. That familiarity extends to Hollywood sets, where guns are often treated with nonchalance. “Despite how many times we tell people in safety briefings, ‘Don’t touch the guns, don’t pick up the guns, don’t pull the triggers on the guns,’ the first thing people do when they see those guns is they try to pick them up,” Thomas Pimentel, an armorer based in Massachusetts, explained.

After all, guns are considered essential to American identity—an idea that films and shows have long endorsed. Justin A. Joyce, a researcher at the New School and the author of Gunslinging Justice: The American Culture of Gun Violence in Westerns and the Law, told me that Westerns—a genre that dominated early filmmaking and continues to influence today’s acclaimed movies—thrived because they validated the gun as a solution for conflicts that the legal system couldn’t handle. When a hero in a film fires a gun and ends the life of a villain, “that’s very reassuring to the popular imagination,” Joyce said. “It helps reassure [American audiences] that the individual has the power to solve things.”

As a result, any push for limiting the use of firearms on Hollywood sets tends to reflect the larger national debate over gun control. “Whether you are a gun owner or not, folks in America are raised to reify the power of the individual, and guns work as a symbol in that way,” Joyce explained. “I find it hard to imagine that in a culture where we are more ready to ban books than we are to ban guns that we’re suddenly going to stop having gun shootouts in movies.” The truth is that the continued presence of guns on set means another deadly accident remains entirely possible—but as uncomfortable as that truth may be, it’s one that Hollywood seems willing to accept.

Hutchins was killed on October 21, 2021—just 12 days into the filming of Rust—during a rehearsal for a gunfight set in a church on the outskirts of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The actor Alec Baldwin was holding a prop revolver when it discharged a live round. Hutchins had been standing two feet away from the gun’s muzzle, without any protective gear, when a projectile struck her in the chest. Those are perhaps the only facts about her death that have not been disputed. Baldwin contends that he did not pull the trigger. Some crew members claim that the production never distributed firearm-safety protocols with call sheets as is typical. The source of the live ammunition on set has not been determined. One account alleges that the prop guns had been toyed with by crew members and used to shoot at beer cans to pass the time.

Every armorer I interviewed told me that having a gun on a set should not generate this much confusion. Their job is to work with the filmmakers to figure out what kinds of guns are suited for which scenes, oversee every weapon brought to set, and hold safety meetings for the crew involved. Many have developed their own set of protocols on top of the guidelines outlined by unions. “If [those protocols are] followed, and my crew and I follow them to the letter, there can’t be any mishaps,” said Mike Tristano, an armorer based in Los Angeles who for decades has worked on projects of all sizes, including The Purge.

At the same time, armorers can have very different ideas about the best way to do their job, not to mention different attitudes toward the risks involved with filming gunplay. In fact, reporting this piece often felt like moderating an extended debate—about the best way to modify guns to achieve a realistic look and sound, about the comparative cost of relying on visual rather than practical effects, about the necessity of firing blanks, about the usefulness of replicas. This lack of consensus is reflected on a larger scale in the industry. Consider the flurry of pledges that came after Hutchins’s death: Alexi Hawley, the showrunner of the ABC police drama The Rookie, told his staff to stop using live guns but keep BB-like pellet-firing ones. Eric Kripke, the showrunner of Amazon’s The Boys, vowed to stop using guns altogether and use only visual effects. (Hawley didn’t respond to requests for comment; Kripke declined a request.) If even those in Hollywood advocating for new safety measures can’t agree on the basic questions, how can anyone expect sweeping change?

Responsibility rests not only with armorers and actors, Pimentel said, but also with directors and producers, who don’t always prioritize gun safety over other filmmaking concerns. “The fact that so many people work in an industry where firearms are so prevalent and they don’t have knowledge of actual working firearms and safety—that’s the reason there are so many problems,” Pimentel said. Armorers I spoke with told me that because they tend to work on set only on days when weapons are involved, they can have a hard time initiating conversations and enforcing protocols. Hollywood has a long history of notoriously harsh labor practices, and the Rust incident—which happened as members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees were preparing to potentially strike—raises questions about how a project choked by a tight budget gets run. “A lot of times [those in charge] will just forge ahead with whatever they want to do,” Pimentel said. Going along with the status quo is easier than overhauling an entire workplace culture, just as it is easier to wear a neoprene band for protection than to try to change one man’s attention span.

But Baiss argues that any solution has to involve addressing both the under-prioritization of safety on set and the general abundance and accessibility of firearms. On the Rust set, the live ammo became available not only because safety protocols were overlooked but also “because guns are so ubiquitous in the U.S.,” she told me. “But when you hear any [possibility of] gun legislation, the red flags go up, and everything [in that arena] is shut down.”

Hollywood is capable of making swift and sweeping changes when it wants to. After the #MeToo movement took off on social media in late 2017, intimacy coordinators became integral to helping actors define boundaries and negotiate power dynamics when filming sex scenes. After the pandemic started shutting down film and TV sets in 2020, unions outlined new safety protocols that included the creation of a COVID compliance officer to help prevent the coronavirus’s spread.

But gunplay isn’t seen as an immediate threat; rather, it is viewed as a foundational part of entertainment. To interrogate the use of guns in productions is to interrogate entire genres—and perhaps to even interrogate the art of moviemaking. A scene of a cowboy pointing and firing a gun straight at the audience is part of what is widely regarded as the first narrative movie ever made, the 1903 Western The Great Train Robbery. “It seems really trite to say, but guns make for good movies. There is something aesthetically very charged about that,” Joyce told me, adding that the allure extends far beyond Westerns.

For decades, Hollywood has understood the appeal of gun violence and glorified it further: Depictions of gunplay nearly tripled from 1985 to 2015 in PG-13 movies, and doubled in prime-time TV dramas from 2000 to 2018. The firearm brand Glock won a Brandcameo Lifetime Achievement Award for Product Placement after showing up in 22 box-office-topping films in 2010. The guns themselves may not attract audiences, Davis pointed out, but the gunplay—stars as killing machines, dodging streams of bullets flying across the screen—certainly “tantalizes” them. He pointed to John Wick, for example, as a franchise that has been successful partly because the gunfights are “very well choreographed.”

Hollywood, as a whole, values verisimilitude. Consider how Oscar campaigns emphasize the way an actor attempts to fully embody a character’s turmoil, how auteur directors seek to film on location, and how wardrobe departments search for historically accurate fabrics to dress period-drama casts. For action films, the fact that stars have done their own stunts or perfected their own skills, such as learning to fly a helicopter, becomes a major selling point. But the skill of using a gun effectively enhances an action hero’s appeal more than anything else. “You can have ostensible action [projects] that don’t necessarily ‘need’ a gun, but [shootouts] still end up happening,” Joyce said, pointing to the TV series Reacher as an example. The show’s titular character is a buff man who’s shown to be “physically dominating just by sheer force, yet the climax is this elaborate set piece for gun violence.” The gun is representative of such a character’s true power.

The armorers I interviewed told me that making every actor who handles a weapon look more realistic doing so is paramount, and a quality they take pride in, especially in a community as small as theirs. “There are only so many of us in the industry that can actually choreograph a gunfight,” Davis told me, and professionals like him are less recognized for their work than crew members in other departments. Even stunt performers, who have been pushing for years to be recognized with a category at the Oscars, have industry awards that celebrate their efforts. To armorers, having guns on sets isn’t a question about the Second Amendment or whether civilians should own firearms; it’s simply about realizing the right look. “Don’t turn it into a political thing, because we’re talking about filmmaking,” Tristano said. “I’m talking about making a movie.”

In the immediate aftermath of Hutchins’s death, some of the productions that hired Tristano and his crew wanted to work without live guns. But others have asked for the opposite, in spite of what happened on the set of Rust. These and other projects in the future may indeed double down on better training and safety. But that won’t change an undeniable fact, according to Baiss. “As long as you’re going to have real guns on movie sets,” she said, “there is going to be this problem.” In other words, Hollywood may like a happy ending, but it’s just as comfortable with a remake.