A Film-Industry Armorer on the Rust Shooting Charges

Who’s responsible for the on-set shooting, and how can another be prevented?

An illustration featuring a black-and-white photo of Alec Baldwin
MEGA / GC Images / Getty; The Atlantic

When someone is accidentally shot and killed on a film set, who is responsible: the actor holding the gun, the person who handed it to him, or the professional charged with managing the movie’s weaponry? Last week, New Mexico prosecutors proposed an answer: all three.

The actor Alec Baldwin will be charged with involuntary manslaughter for the fatal shooting of the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the film Rust. Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the film’s armorer—the person who manages the set’s firearms and their related safety protocols—also faces charges. Meanwhile, assistant director Dave Halls, the person who reportedly handed Baldwin the gun moments before the incident, has taken a plea deal on a charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon, according to prosecutors.  Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed have denied responsibility for Hutchins’s death.

I spoke with Thomas Pimentel, a Massachusetts-based armorer, twice over the phone about the charges, the state of the armorer position in the movie industry, and whether Hollywood should stop using guns on film sets altogether.

Our conversations have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: Just right off the bat, what did you make of these charges?

Thomas Pimentel: I’m happy about it. This never should have happened. It was definitely preventable. I am married with children, and I’m an armorer. So when I hear that someone gets killed because of negligence, and they leave a mom behind and they leave children behind, it’s horrible.

Nobody should lose their life over make-believe. They shouldn’t. You should expect a level of professionalism and safety in whatever workplace that you’re in. And it was unacceptable.

Nyce: Obviously, there are multiple people being charged here. Do you have any opinion about who’s responsible?

Pimentel: Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the armorer, was inexperienced. There was live ammunition on the set. That’s just absurd.

And the assistant director never should have been handling any of those firearms or the props. That’s the armorer’s job.

Nyce: In a lawsuit, Gutierrez-Reed claims she was not in the building at the time of the shooting, because she wasn’t notified that a gun was being used. What do you make of that?

Pimentel: You can probably chalk that up to them having a half-assed production, is what it sounds like. This sounds like another one of the many mistakes or oversights that happened on this project.

Nyce: So, in your experience, the armorer should be the only person, other than the actor, handling the gun?

Pimentel: One hundred percent. When the armorer wakes up in the morning, those guns and the ammunition should be under lock and key. Everything should have been inventoried the night before. They look at their call sheet; they know what they need. They’ll normally have a cart that has the weapons for that particular scene locked up with keys that only they have on their person. They’ll transport them to set when they’re called to set. They’ll open up those cases. For a rehearsal, a lot of times, they will bring out the guns. Now, a lot of times you can do a rehearsal without guns.

Nyce: Baldwin was rehearsing when this happened, right?

Pimentel: Right. But the thing is, if they had not used them in rehearsal and then used them in the actual scene, would he have shot her then? Who knows? But it’s just another layer of protection that’s put in place.

When you’re ready to go, the actors stand on their marks. Firearms are called in. The armorer will walk in with the firearms and put them in the actor’s hands. If they need to fire the guns, the armorer will chamber a round into whatever gun needs to be fired. And he will say “This weapon is hot” right to the actor’s face. Of course, this is after your typical safety briefings that they have every single day and before every single scene is shot with firearms, to let everyone know that firearms are on set.

Nyce: According to court documents reviewed by The New York Times, Halls, the assistant director, is alleged to have announced “cold gun,” indicating that the weapon did not contain live rounds. And the district attorney who filed the charges against Baldwin claimed that the actor didn’t check the gun. One of Baldwin’s lawyers issued a statement maintaining that the actor “had no reason to believe there was a live bullet in the gun—or anywhere on the movie set.” The statement said Baldwin “relied on the professionals with whom he worked, who assured him the gun did not have live rounds.” What’s your reaction to those statements?

Pimentel: So first of all, if the assistant director was the one who handed him the pistol, there was no professional involved who knew anything about firearms. So that’s hugely concerning.

Baldwin has been doing this long enough. He’s been in a lot of movies, action movies and things like that. If someone hands him a gun, what’s stopping him from looking down and looking through that chamber and saying, “Oh, I got rounds in here”? “Why are we dealing with rounds? Are they dummy rounds? Can I inspect the dummy rounds myself?" He’s totally okay to ask that.

Nyce: Do you think safety is partially the actor’s responsibility?

Pimentel: Of course it is. If you do a movie about Ford versus Ferrari, you’re going to drive cars. You get in a race car, and you learn how to drive race cars. You do everything that you have to do to get as competent and proficient in that particular field as possible. Handling firearms is no different.

Anybody that uses guns in a movie should have to go through the exact same training and licensing process that people like me go through: background checks by the FBI, local and state police, insurance, things like that.

Nyce: Gutierrez-Reed’s lawsuit alleges that Baldwin ignored a request to schedule a “cross draw training.” Baldwin is not named as a defendant in Gutierrez-Reed’s suit. What do you think about that allegation?

Pimentel: Anybody who’s fired a real gun from a holster knows that it’s not a skill that you can just pick up in an afternoon, and certainly not with an antique firearm. That is something that you practice thousands of times over and over and over again.

Nyce: But can you train someone?

Pimentel: You absolutely could. As an actor, that part of your job is to make it believable. So why wouldn’t you want to give it your best foot forward?

It’s funny to me how there are so many rules, especially in filmmaking. If there’s going to be a candle on a table in a scene, I kid you not: They will have a briefing about the fire risk that day. And they will have a fire marshal on set for a candle. It’s so amazing to me, especially nowadays, because you can do so much with technology. Everyone’s seen a good flickering LED candle.

It’s make-believe. I think it’s part of the old Hollywood system. Ever since they’ve made films, they’ve used real guns with blanks in films. And it’s just the thing that people continue to do. And believe me: There are tons of productions that still, to this day, use real guns with blanks all the time, and they do it safely. Those are the people that people should be looking at and consulting, asking, “How do you stay so safe?”

Nyce: So is it a training problem, or would you ever see a world in which they remove real guns from movies altogether?

Pimentel: (Laughs.) I don’t know.

Nyce: Is that putting your profession on the line?

Pimentel: Oh, no, no. I don’t do anything with blank-firing guns anymore. I stopped working with blank-firing guns probably 10 years ago.

Nyce: Why did you do that?

Pimentel: Because it’s a hassle. The only guns that we use are airsoft guns and replica guns. And later on, in postproduction, we put in the smoke and the sound and the shells ejecting from the sides. That’s what they’re doing in films anyway. If you have a real gun on a set, a machine gun, and you’re firing blanks out of it, not only do they take the sound out and put in a new sound in postproduction; they put muzzle flash. And they’ll touch up the spent rounds that are coming out the side. So why would you even do all that? Well, it doesn’t make any sense, right?

There’s a show on CBS and Paramount+ called SEAL Team, and they show these guys having these intense firefights and explosions. They do that every week. They manage to pull all that stuff off, and they do it well and safely. So there are ways that you can do it. Does it enhance the production? It totally does. One of the best shoot-outs in movie history is this intense bank-robbery scene from the movie Heat, with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. It’s an incredible scene. And one of the things that makes it so realistic is because everyone on that set, all the actors involved, can hear it. They can feel it. There is something to be said for immersing people in things like that.

I’ve seen it a lot, too, where you hand an actor a gun that doesn’t make any noise, and they have to pretend. And a lot of these movies use airsoft guns that don’t make any sounds. And the actors are supposed to be firing these guns, and no one’s blinking at all. They’re just standing there.

Nyce: That sounds like an acting problem.

Pimentel: Ahh, yes! Thank God somebody finally said it. You’re absolutely right. Which goes back to my original point: These people are so concerned with “My character’s left-handed, so I have to spend six weeks eating soup with my left hand.” There are so many microscopic details that they pay attention to, and yet they gloss over firearm safety and realistic acting with firearms.

There aren’t people on a film set whose job it is to come in and say, “Don’t do that.” It’s very difficult to because of the hierarchy. An armorer can come in and handle weapons, but good luck trying to speak up when you hand an A-list celebrity a pistol, and he puts his finger on the trigger and he’s not supposed to. I’ve been there: “You can’t say anything to them in front of the rest of the crew. It’ll be embarrassing.”

Nyce: But that’s why they hired you!

Pimentel: Well, you can say that about dozens of positions.

Nyce: Sounds like a power dynamic.

Pimentel: There’s so much of that involved. Not everybody is paying attention to what they should be doing in their job. It’s everywhere in every department.

Nyce: How do you design a system to protect those people from themselves and harming others?

Pimentel: Exactly. (Laughs.)

Nyce: No, I’m serious.

Pimentel: Oh, I know.

Nyce: The point of having an armorer there is for safety. If the power dynamics on set are not great and making it hard for an armorer to do their job, is it worth it to reform that job? Or should that job just not exist?

Pimentel: I think it absolutely should be reformed. Boy, I’ll tell you, the contracts for working on a movie set have changed dramatically post-#MeToo, which is great.

But nothing has changed in the industry on firearm safety because of what happened with Alec Baldwin. The day that happened, people were calling for—not only did they not want guns in movies, they didn’t want guns at all. All the celebrities came out, and they were tweeting about it. But they’re gone now. They’re on to something else, and nothing has changed.