Oh my: One dead on Alec Baldwin set over prop-gun "misfire" (Updated)

How could a prop gun loaded with blanks have killed a cinematographer on a Hollywood film location? Investigators in New Mexico want to know that too, and that’s not the only mystery in this story so far. The man who fired the shot(s?) was the star of Rust, Alec Baldwin, who hasn’t been charged in the incident, and appears devastated by it:

The Santa Fe Sheriff’s Department confirmed Thursday night that Alec Baldwin “discharged” the prop gun that killed Rust cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza on the set of the Western feature film on location in New Mexico.

Hutchins, 42, died not long after being transported to a hospital in Albuquerque, NM this afternoon. Souza, 48, remains in a local hospital; his condition is unknown. …

Deadline earlier reported that Criminal Investigators were called to the scene at Bonanza Creek Ranch just outside Santa Fe as sources informing us that a principal castmember cocked a gun, hitting Souza, 48 and Hutchins, 42, on set. The entire location went under lockdown during the investigation. The castmember, now identified as Baldwin, was unaware of the type of ammunition in the gun, we’re told. A rep from the production said that “Production has been halted for the time being” on Rust and that “the safety of our cast and crew remains our top priority.”

Traditionally, the prop master or armorer is responsible for fire arms and fire arms safety on a set such as Rust.

We should be cautious about first reports on this shooting, as we should be with any such incident. We should be doubly cautious about piling on with people whose politics and personality we don’t approve. At the moment, this looks like a completely unintentional accident that has nothing to do with politics or personality, and there’s no reason at this moment to jump to any conclusions otherwise.

There are a couple of puzzling elements to this, however. If the pistol didn’t have live ammunition, it’s tough to understand how two people got wounded on the set from one shot — possible, but strange. Deadline’s initial report that director Joel Souza was wounded has been walked back subtly since the first reports; he’s now being described as hospitalized for unknown reasons, which is a smarter way to approach this. It’s also strange to see it reported as a “misfire,” which would normally indicate either a non-shot or some sort of explosion in the pistol itself.

How could this happen? As CBS This Morning notes, Hollywood has a small but notable history of prop-gun accidents. It isn’t always an issue of misunderstanding the threat from blanks, either. The accident that killed Brandon Lee while filming The Crow turned out to have been caused by a “dummy” bullet being loaded into the prop gun, for instance. But in other instances (notably Hexum’s), people don’t grasp that any gunpowder explosion is potentially fatal if close enough to it.

Whatever the explanation, though, clearly someone was negligent, and perhaps more than one person. That may or may not include Baldwin, who could very well have just trusted the prop master (as he’s supposed to do) and not known of any increased danger with the pistol. That is exactly what happened in The Crow, when Michael Massee unknowingly fired an improperly constructed dummy bullet at Brandon Lee, an accident that reportedly gave Massee nightmares for the rest of his life. Massee was named as a respondent to the lawsuit from Lee’s family, but the mistake wasn’t his.

For now, though, it doesn’t appear that anyone had a criminal intent, which is why law enforcement in New Mexico is approaching this carefully and cautiously. Even if this doesn’t result in any criminal action, we can be sure that civil action from Hutchins’ family will be forthcoming. Unless everyone involves settles this quickly to the Hutchins family’s satisfaction, we’ll find out eventually what happened on this set — and why it appears that this film production didn’t learn a lesson from The Crow.

Update: The Lee family has issued a statement:

Indeed. After over twenty years since losing Lee, one would have thought that Hollywood would have developed better technology to increase safety on sets.

Update: Deadline confirmed that Souza has checked out of the hospital, after veteran actor Frances Fisher announced it on her Twitter feed:

It’s still not entirely clear whether Souza was also shot or got injured in another way. It would seem unlikely that an accidental shooting would claim two victims, especially when described as a “misfire.” It’s not impossible either; a misfire or a bad round could have created shrapnel that went out at muzzle velocity in multiple directions. If both Souza and Hutchins were close enough, that could explain it — although it doesn’t explain why the gun would have been pointed at them rather than the actor sharing the scene with Baldwin.