How Do Prop Guns Work? Fight Expert Weighs in After 'Shocking' Shooting on Alec Baldwin Movie Set
Prop guns are designed with the express purpose of looking like real firearms, but not actually functioning as so. However, there is room for mishap with such devices, as happened on Thursday when Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed a crewmember and left another injured on the set of his new movie.
Baldwin, 63, misfired a prop gun at the Bonanza Creek Ranch set of the film Rust in New Mexico, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injuring director Joel Souza. The local prop master's union has said that the gun Baldwin fired contained "a live round," according to an email viewed by IndieWire.
After the incident, Hutchins, 42, was airlifted to the University of New Mexico Hospital, where she died from her injuries, according to the Santa Fe Sheriff's Department. Souza, 48, underwent treatment for his injuries at Christus St. Vincent's hospital, officials said. His reps confirmed to Deadline on Friday that he is out of the hospital.
Christian Kelly-Sordelet, who works as a professional fight director, stunt coordinator and action designer for Broadway, movie and TV productions, tells PEOPLE that a working gun and live ammunition "should never be anywhere close together" on a set.
"It's very surprising — shocking — that it happened because these days there's so many precautions that get taken," he says. "You should never even have live ammunition on set in the same vicinity as these props. That's a problem because that means that you're open for that accident to happen."
Kelly-Sordelet says that the standardized safety precautions for using prop guns on a set begin with making sure no one is nearby when the gun is fired, even if it's only loaded with blanks.
"You want to have as many things stacked in your favor as possible to avoid anything going wrong, so first and foremost, the number one rule is basically treat everything like it could potentially be loaded and it could potentially harm someone," he says. "We never want to have anyone pull the trigger on a prop firearm if anybody's in the line of fire — you should never be pointing it directly at another person, and if you're pointing it at the camera, then there should be no operators behind the camera."
"Even if it's not loaded, there is an explosive charge that can come out of the barrel with a blank and so if anything gets in the way of that, it can be harmful to someone," he continues, noting that he abides by the "cone of safety" rule, meaning that no one should be within two feet of either side of the barrel or eight to 10 feet from the front of the barrel.
Kelly-Sordelet says that another standard precaution is showing the gun to everyone involved to double and triple check that it is empty, or loaded only with blanks.
"We would do a test where we would show all people involved — the camera people, the director, performers, anybody who's going to be on set — we'll say 'This is how this prop operates, this is what makes it safe,'" he explains.
"I will load the blanks in front of the person pulling the trigger," he adds. "I would not recommend a performer ever even touch a prop that you haven't seen loaded directly in front of you."
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Another source in the filmmaking industry similarly tells PEOPLE that checking prop firearms before they are fired is a common practice.
"Every time I'm on set with a gun, everyone is offered a chance to look at and hold the gun, see the empty chamber etc," the insider says. "Anyone on the crew is given an opportunity to feel safe about it and the props armorer always shows it. I've done these meetings sometimes multiple times a day even."
Kelly-Sordelet says that while a fatal accidental shooting is "abnormal," on-set accidents are not.
"These types of things happen all the time, it's just not always a loaded gun on set. Sometimes it's something else that's also a really easily avoided accident that happens in some other way that doesn't get as much attention," he says.
"I hope that people will see this and it'll help to wake people up a little bit more in terms of proper safety precautions on set," he continues. "Because when we're going and creating art like this, nobody should be worried about if their mom's going to come home that night."
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