A Hollywood firearms expert explains how guns are supposed to be handled safely on set

alec baldwin human right rfk
alec baldwin human right rfk  
  • A gun fired on the set of the movie "Rust" on Thursday killed one person and injured another.

  • Hollywood firearms expert Larry Zanoff said sets are supposed to have a designated person handling guns.

  • Blanks are supposed to be used instead of live ammunition, but they can still cause injury.

The death of "Rust" cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on Thursday has raised questions about whether firearms are safely handled on movie and TV sets.

Alec Baldwin, the lead actor of the movie, fired a prop gun while filming a scene on the New Mexico set. It discharged, killing Hutchins and injuring the movie's director, Joel Souza, the Santa Fe County Sheriff's office said.

IATSE Local 44, a union representing prop masters, told its members in an email that a live round was used in Baldwin's gun, although none of its members were on the movie's call sheet, Indiewire reported. The sheriff's office said in a statement to Insider that "Detectives are investigating how and what type of projectile was discharged."

If the gun had live ammunition, it would be a major violation of set safety guidelines, according to Larry Zanoff, a prop weapons manager at Independent Studio Services.

"The television and motion picture industry uses blanks," Zanoff told Insider. "There's no place for live ammunition on a television or movie set."

Using blanks instead of live ammunition can still cause injuries

Zanoff, a former gunsmith, now works to safely equip actors with guns on movie and TV sets. He has nearly 60 credits to his name on IMDb, ranging from "Captain America: Civil War" to "Westworld."

He said that every set is supposed to have a designated person to oversee firearm use on set, make sure all guns and ammunition are "under lock and key" when they're not being used, and inspect the firearms before and after each scene with their use.

That person, he said, is also supposed to hold multiple daily safety briefings - regardless of whether any guns are actually fired on set on that particular day.

"That person should be a professional who is both educated enough and technically skilled enough to handle those particular firearms that are being used on that particular production," Zanoff said. "Guns are supposed to be inspected before and after each and every use."

Prop guns are often capable of firing live ammunition, but only blank cartridges are supposed to be used on set. The difference, Zanoff said, is the projectile. Live ammunition is designed to kill or injure, including a piece of metal that's supposed to speed out of the gun upon firing. Blanks might have a piece of paper or cotton instead of metal. So while a blank may have gunpowder, igniting the gunpowder won't shoot a hard object out of the gun itself.

larry zanoff
larry zanoff  

That doesn't mean that a blank can't still hurt someone. Igniting the gunpowder could still cause burns and other injuries, and industry standards require that the cast and crew be 20 feet away if a blank is being fired, Zanoff said.

"If you put something with a blank very close to your skin, clearly you'd get burned. There is an explosion," Zanoff said. "It's supposed to be simulated gunfire. So in order to look correct, you're going to get a muzzle flash."

Following Hutchins's death, will industry standards change? Zanoff said it's too soon to tell, but the existing guidelines are very strong already, and he thinks it's likely they weren't properly followed on the set of "Rust."

"The majority of productions go day in, day out, and manage to replicate gunfire multiple, multiple times a day in a very safe and controlled way," Zanoff said. "I don't know that there's anything more stringent that can be done as far as the safety protocol goes. It's more a question of whether or not the safety protocols were followed."


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