How are prop guns dangerous? Alec Baldwin incident raises concerns
Firearms experts say it is rare for someone to be killed from a prop gun while filming a movie or TV show.
Firearms experts say it is rare for someone to be killed from a prop gun while filming a movie or TV show as a weapons master or armourer is mandated to be on set to ensure everyone's safety, in addition to providing rigorous training and gun handling to actors beforehand.
New Mexico police said Wednesday that actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun on the set of Western film "Rust," killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injuring director Joel Souza.
Charles Taylor, head armourer of Movie Armaments Group Canada, called the news "shocking."
"This is not something that you would expect for the amount of safety, and the protocols that we have with all master armours on movie sets," Taylor told CTV News Channel on Friday.
When filming in Canada, Taylor explained that movie crews have to follow "very stringent rules" when using a firearm.
"We have the Canadian Firearms Act that basically states that anybody that handles a firearm on a movie set requires a business firearms license and must be trained to do so," he said.
Taylor said that firearms safety specialists are required to be on set when filming using a gun and must train actors "days or weeks in advance" of filming on how to properly handle a firearm.
After training is complete, Taylor said it is up to the weapons master to decide whether a scene should go ahead.
"It's ultimately our call… whether that actor or person is even capable of handling a firearm and if they're not, we just say, 'No, here's a prop,' and we're not doing any gunfire," he said.
Cameron K. Smith, a motion picture firearms coordinator and consultant based in B.C., said prop guns need to be treated as real firearms when being handled on movie sets.
If not, he says the actor can pose a real threat to themselves, as well as cast and crew.
Smith told CTVNews.ca in an email Friday that prop guns can "absolutely" be dangerous if the individual handling the firearm is "unfocused, uncertain, or potentially unhinged."
However, he says an injury or death from a prop gun is rare.
"In the hands of a trained and focused actor, working in conjunction with a certified motion picture firearms coordinator, the scenes normally function quite smoothly and very safely," Smith said.
Difference between prop guns and real firearms
Taylor noted that the majority of guns used in films are "real firearms" that have been converted to fire a blank, which is a bullet that has had the projectile removed.
He noted that "prop weapons" or non-functioning weapons are not typically used in TV and movies because they don't look authentic.
While it is unclear what type of gun Baldwin was using on the set of "Rust," Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, told CTVNews.ca on Friday that the term prop gun could refer to a range of items, from non-functioning weapons to real ones that fire caps or blanks.
Owusu-Bempah said in a telephone interview that blanks are used to imitate live ammunition in film, as they will still provide a firing sound, a recoil and visible combustion from the shot.
He explained that the firing mechanism for blanks is the same as a live round of ammunition. Both cartridges are comprised of a casing that holds an explosive powder, such as gunpowder, however, the blank does not have a projectile on the end.
Instead, it may be sealed with a cap made out of paper or plastic, he said.
Given this, Owusu-Bempah noted that a blank can still be dangerous, especially at close range.
"This is not the first time that there has been an incident in which prop gun... has involved an injury," he said.
In 1993, Brandon Lee, son of martial arts star Bruce Lee, died after being shot by a prop gun on the set of the movie "The Crow."
The gun was supposed to have fired a blank, but an autopsy turned up a bullet lodged near his spine.
In another incident, actor Jon-Erik Hexum died in 1984 after shooting himself in the head with a blank from a prop gun after being frustrated by delays in filming and pretending to play Russian roulette on the set of the TV series "Cover Up."
However, Owusu-Bempah says the incident involving Baldwin may push the film industry to use more non-functioning weapons or special effects for gunfire rather than blanks.
"I think this does raise really good questions about why such weapons are being used on set at all, especially given our concerns around firearms at the moment," Owusu-Bempah said.
"There's really no need to be using real guns given just how far CGI has come."