Guns—Even Props—Are Not Toys

Following gun-safety rules is always imperative, even on a movie set.

A gun in a lock box
David Ryder / Getty

About the author: Stephen Gutowski is the founder of The Reload, an independent publication focused on firearms policy and politics.

Alec Baldwin was involved in a tragic shooting on the set of his latest movie yesterday.

One person was killed and another seriously wounded when a prop gun was discharged by the actor, according to the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office. Early reports offered conflicting information. A spokesperson for Baldwin told the Associated Press that the gun in question was firing blanks. In an email to members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the secretary-treasurer of IATSE Local 44 wrote that “a live single round was accidentally fired on set by the principal actor,” IndieWire reported.

It’s impossible at this point to draw any hard conclusions about precisely what went wrong. But whatever the specifics, there’s a simple lesson to be learned: Guns aren’t toys. Even props must be handled with respect for the harm they’re capable of inflicting. Training is required to operate any firearm safely, whether on set, at the range, or at home. And following gun-safety rules is always imperative.

A variety of different guns are used in film productions. Those include rubber guns that don’t function at all, airsoft guns with simulated blowback, blank-firing props, and even real functioning firearms. Blank-firing prop guns are designed to only work with blanks. Many have blocked barrels to prevent a projectile from being fired through them. Real guns used as props are sometimes modified in the same way. But live ammunition improperly loaded into either kind of gun could potentially overcome those precautions.

Many productions employ trained safety experts to ensure that live ammunition is not brought on set, and that proper safety procedures are followed.

Even if a production does not make an obvious mistake, such as allowing live ammunition onto set, the use of blanks carries its own risks. Blanks are usually cartridges that are manufactured without the inclusion of the bullet. They still feature a primer and powder charge, though, at about half the strength of a live round.

That means they still expel a lot of hot gas at a high rate of speed and can still be dangerous. This is especially true if something is lodged in the prop gun’s barrel that the charge can propel forward.

The military is acutely aware of these risks. If you’ve ever seen footage of soldiers training with a strange device on the end of their barrel, that was a blank-firing attachment. It’s designed to both help the firearm cycle with the lighter powder load and block any potential projectiles— short of an actual bullet fired from a live round—from exiting the barrel.

There have been other tragic prop-gun-related accidents on set. The CBS Cover Up star Jon-Erik Hexum reportedly pointed a prop gun loaded with a blank at his head as a joke during a break on set back in 1984. The force of the blank going off so close to his head was enough to kill him, even without any bullet. Older-style blanks sometimes used a cotton wad, and if such a wad was propelled out of the barrel, it might have contributed to Hexum’s death. Newer blanks that use crimped cartridges instead of cotton wads may provide an added layer of safety. But that doesn’t mean they are perfectly safe either.

In 2008, a similar scene unfolded before a rendition of Oklahoma at a Utah high school. A 15-year-old boy was killed when a gun firing blanks was pointed at his head, apparently at close range.

And in 1993, Brandon Lee, the son of Bruce Lee, was filming a movie titled The Crow. During a scene in which the character he played was supposed to be shot, something went wrong, and Lee was killed. His autopsy revealed that he’d been hit with a .44-caliber bullet.

The details in Lee’s case are, to some degree, still disputed. We might never get a perfect explanation for what happened to him, and the same might be true for this latest tragedy.

This kind of negligence is exceedingly rare. Prop guns, blanks, and even real guns used as props are involved in entertainment productions every day without a problem. That is only the case when everyone handling the firearms, including the actors, both properly understands the risks involved in using them and follows the rules designed to mitigate those risks.

Although the details of this accident remain unclear, it appears likely that somebody did not follow all of the rules necessary to keep everyone involved safe. We don’t yet know exactly which safeguards failed. But the result is one person dead and another in the hospital—because guns are not toys.