How can a prop gun kill? Utah expert says only after multiple safety failures

Santa Fe County Sheriff’s officers respond to the scene
of a fatal accidental shooting at a Bonanza Creek Ranch movie set
near Santa Fe, N.M. Thursday. Authorities say a woman has been killed and a man injured Thursday after they were shot by a prop firearm at a movie set outside Santa Fe.

Santa Fe County Sheriff’s officers respond to the scene of a fatal accidental shooting at a Bonanza Creek Ranch movie set near Santa Fe, N.M. Thursday. Authorities say a woman has been killed and a man injured Thursday after they were shot by a prop firearm at a movie set outside Santa Fe. (Luis Sanchez-Saturno, Santa Fe New Mexican via AP)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah firearms expert with extensive experience working as a weapons handler on Hollywood film productions said the tragic death on the set of Alec Baldwin's new movie could only have occurred as the result of basic safety measures being ignored at multiple levels.

Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, said it's common practice for outside weapons and ammunition of any kind to be banned from the sets of movie productions to help ensure accidents don't occur. He also noted that the weapon specialists hired for film shoots are typically the only individuals who handle guns and ammunition on the set at all times, except when an actor is carrying or using the gun while filming is in progress.

"When I'm a weapons handler on these projects, I'm the only one who handles the guns," Aposhian said. "I'm checking the weapon and ammunition before I hand the weapon to an actor and, as soon as the shot is done, I take the weapon back and check it again and it never leaves my possession until the next scene."

"This happens between every take," he said, "no matter what."

Aposhian, who said he's worked with actors including Bill Pullman, Ving Rhames and Danny Trejo, said firearm safety briefs are required for all actors and production staff working on movies that include the use of weapons during filming. And that a live round could only make it into a prop gun an actor was using if "serious mistakes were made at multiple levels beforehand."

Film and television productions use a variety of different weapons that include fake rubber guns, guns designed to only fire inert ammunition and real guns that are only loaded with blanks, Aposhian said. Blanks also come in a variety of configurations with some that just are loaded with gunpowder and others that have cardboard or paper wadding that creates the back pressure necessary to operate some weapons, like those with semi-automatic firing mechanisms, he said.

And, he said that some film shoots never fire any type of round at all, adding the visual "muzzle blast" and sound effects in post-production.

Aposhian said weapon handlers on Hollywood sets typically have the power to shut down film shoots for any breach of safety protocols, an issue he said is rare but does occur, including on movies he's worked on.

"For a scene in one project I worked on, the director wanted the actor, who was Danny Trejo, to pick up some shells from the ground," Aposhian said. "They make ammunition specifically for this, that looks right and has a cartridge loaded with a bullet, but no powder. We didn't have any on hand, so a production person went out to his car and came back with a handful of live rounds.

"I immediately shut down the set and insisted that the staffer be asked to leave before restarting. I told them either he had to go or I would ... it's that serious."

Aposhian said some types of weapons require a higher level of scrutiny for on-set weapons experts, including rifles or shotguns with tubular magazines and old-style, single-action handguns that don't have a cylinder that swings out from the weapon.

'A horrible tragedy'

While the circumstances behind the Thursday incident that left one person dead and one injured remain unclear, some are already questioning if prop guns should ever be used during filming.

The Baldwin-involved fatal shooting of Halyna Hutchins on a New Mexico movie set has reignited talk of prop gun safety, while the film world mourns the death of the 42-year-old cinematographer.

Hutchins, who was killed Thursday when Baldwin discharged a prop gun on the set of "Rust," is not the first person to die from a stand-in firearm. Others, including the son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, were also killed in prop gun accidents.

Actor Joe Manganiello, who starred in "Archenemy" in which Hutchins was a part of the crew, said Wednesday he was "in shock" over her death.

"I can't believe this could happen in this day and age ... gunfire from a pop gun that could kill a family member?" he said. "What a horrible tragedy."

Rachel Morrison, the director of photography on "Black Panther," questioned why blanks are still used "when it costs like 50 cents to add gunfire in post (production)."

"Crew should never be unsafe on set and when they are there is always a clearly definable reason why," said actor and director Alex Winter.

James Gunn, director of "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "The Suicide Squad," added that his "greatest fear is that someone will be fatally hurt on one" of his sets.

History of gun deaths on film sets

Hutchins' death reminded some of the 1993 fatal shooting of Brandon Lee, the 28-year-old son of Bruce Lee.

He was killed when "a small explosive charge used to simulate gunfire went off inside a grocery bag during filming" of the movie "The Crow," The Los Angeles Times reported. An autopsy report later revealed he was struck in his spine by a .44-caliber bullet, the Los Angeles Times reported. Crew members ran out of fake bullets and improperly manufactured their own with live ammunition, a lawsuit alleged.

"No one should ever be killed by a gun on a film set. Period," said Sharon Lee, who operates a Twitter page on behalf of her brother, Brandon Lee.

In 1984, Jon-Erik Hexum was killed by the force of a blank projectile when he fired a gun on the set of the CBS series "Cover Up," Entertainment Weekly reported.

"The actor ... had been napping during delays in filming. After learning there would be still more delays, Hexum held the gun to his head, reportedly joking, 'Can you believe this crap?' and pulled the trigger," according to Entertainment Weekly.

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