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A shooting death on ‘Rust’ set has put movie armorers in the spotlight

Elizabeth Miller
October 24, 2021 at 6:09 p.m. EDT
A film set at the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., on Oct. 23. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
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A tragedy on a New Mexico movie set, where actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza, has ignited conversations about workplace safety on films involving firearms. In particular, the incident has put a spotlight on the role of a set’s armorer, or a firearms specialist — and the lack of formal training required to become one.

An armorer is tasked with managing all firearms used on a film set, ensuring they look realistic and are appropriate for the setting of the film. More importantly, they’re tasked with ensuring the weapons are clean, correctly loaded, properly kept up and safely handled.

"There’s no school for this," said Mike Tristano, a master armorer who has been in the business for three decades. "You can’t go to the American Film Institute and learn armory." Still, good practices can ensure safety on movie sets, Tristano said.

Alec Baldwin to be charged with involuntary manslaughter
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Prosecutors said Jan. 19 that "Rust" actor Alec Baldwin and armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed will each be charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Hannah Gutierrez, the daughter of widely known Hollywood armorer Thell Reed, was the armorer on the set of "Rust," a western starring Baldwin that was being filmed at the Bonanza Creek Ranch. An affidavit filed by a Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office detective states that she had set up three prop guns in a gray cart. Assistant director Dave Halls grabbed one of them, brought it to Baldwin and yelled, "Cold gun!" to indicate that it did not contain a live round. According to the affidavit, he was mistaken.

Gutierrez did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Washington Post.

The detail that Halls had handled the weapon alarmed Jeremy Goldstein, an Israeli military veteran and Hollywood armorer.

"No crew member should be handling a weapon of any kind other than the armorer, designated prop person or actor. Full stop," Goldstein told The Post in an email. "The armorer must clear all firearms with the [first assistant director] when bringing them to set, and verify that they are unloaded. Then the armorer does the same with the actor, but the firearm does not leave the custody of the armorer or designated prop person."

Halls has not responded to a request for comment.

A look at how prop weapons are used
A day after actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot a cinematographer on a film set in New Mexico, The Post spoke to a prop expert about how prop guns are used. (Video: Allie Caren, Ashleigh Joplin, Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

There is no standard test to become an armorer, according to Tristano, and training mainly consists of internships or other work under master armorers, the industry term for experienced armorers who oversee those with less experience.

Gutierrez, 24, had been head armorer on a film before "Rust" — another western, "The Old Way," which has not been released. On a recent episode of the podcast "Voices of the West," Gutierrez, using the name Hannah Reed, described her anxiety when she took the role, saying: "I was really nervous about it at first, and I almost didn’t take the job because I wasn’t sure I was ready. But doing it, it went very smoothly."

Some states require armorers to be licensed, while others do not, Tristano said. California, with its strict regulations on firearms, has higher standards than many states, requiring that armorers hold an Entertainment Firearms Permit. The licensing process is handled by the state’s Justice Department; applicants submit to fingerprinting and a background check. There are additional licenses required for specific firearms, Tristano added, such as machine guns.

On set, guidelines are typically set by each individual armorer, he said. Tristano, whose career includes handling the weaponry on a 1998 film featuring Baldwin called "Thick as Thieves," said he keeps guns being used on a set unloaded and open, "so it’s very visible to the crew and the cast that everything in there is safe." They are never left unattended, and they are only touched by Tristano, his crew and the actor firing the weapon.

When the time comes to shoot a scene with gunfire, he starts by giving the actor an unloaded rubber match of the weapon that’s going to be used. After going over the shot and safety parameters, he asks the assistant director, "Are you ready to go hot?" He asks how many blanks they plan to fire, then loads it at that number and hands it to the actor. Once the scene has been filmed, he takes back the gun and clears it.

"No one just goes over and picks up a gun and walks on set with it," Tristano said.

Investigators are still trying to answer whether the gun being loaded with live ammunition was an accident or done on purpose, whether a manufacturing error mispackaged a live round, whether this was supposed to be a blank or whether this type of ammunition, a soft round or perhaps a "cowboy soft round," was confused for something less lethal.

The Santa Fe District Attorney’s Office will determine who, if anyone, will face charges.

Tristano said that, based on the details he has heard, the shooting seems attributable to a lack of discipline regarding firearms safety.

"There’s no reason something like this should ever, ever happen," said the master armorer. "Ever."

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Travis M. Andrews is a features writer for The Washington Post. He is also the author of "Because He's Jeff Goldblum," a rumination on the enigmatic actor's career and an exploration of fame in the 21st century. He joined The Post in 2016. Twitter
Brittany Shammas is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post. Before joining The Post in 2019, she spent eight years writing for newspapers in Florida, including the Miami New Times and the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Twitter

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