Whether one looks at comic books, fiction or film, firearms play a huge part in geek culture. In fact, there’s an entire web site dedicated to document who carried what. Geek Guns takes a look at some of these weapons – focusing on their real-world performance rather than in-universe function. If there’s something you want to know more about, be sure to mention it in the comments.
With Alec Baldwin’s on-set shooting in the news, now seems like a good time to talk about gun safety and how Hollywood both follows and flaunts those rules.
Prop Guns vs Real Guns
There’s a common belief that all “prop guns” are somehow inert or deactivated. This is false. Lots of active weapons are used as movie props simply because it’s cheaper to do it that way and Hollywood is all about money.
This is particularly true of firearms that are cycled manually. These require the operator to rack a slide, turn a bolt or cock a hammer to make it ready to fire. As I’ve noted earlier in this series, one of the big reasons zombies are traditionally fought with revolvers and pump shotguns is that one can use blank rounds (low-powered cartridges without bullets) in them without effecting their function. Semi-automatic and fully automatic weapons may need modifications in order to function properly with blanks because these don’t generate the energy necessary to cycle them. For example, the US military has to use special adapters for M-16s and the various machine guns to cycle when using blank ammunition during training.
I should add that many productions create rubber or plastic replicas that are used for non-shooting scenes. These are lighter, safer and they prevent possible damage to the firing weapon.
In fact, if the gun doesn’t need to fire, inert replicas are a popular option that are also much cheaper than the real thing. If you dig into deep into the Geek Guns archives and do some follow up research at imfdb.com, you’ll find plenty of examples.
Gun Salesmen for Gun Control
One of the many hypocrisies of Hollywood is the way they not only glamorize gun use, but have effectively elevated the use of them to an entire genre: the shoot ’em up. The John Wick franchise is basically a series of shootouts stitched together with minimal plots. In fact, with its elaborate choreography, it closely resembles a Fred Astaire musical from the 1930s.
Guns have always featured in films, but old school Hollywood typically didn’t spend much time showing the weapons. Blade Runner’s approach was typical – so much so that Deckard’s weapon doesn’t even have a specific name.
The reason is clear: firearms add danger and therefore dramatic tension. Sergio Leone’s quick draw scenes are masterpieces of tension, especially his immortal three-way standoff in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Hollywood’s muted response to Baldwin’s shooting is because they fear increased safety requirements will increase production costs. The truth is that for all the gunplay that goes in, accidents are remarkably rare. The death of Brandon Lee during the filming of The Crow still stirs interest precisely because it was so surprising.
Safety First, Always
Predictably, Baldwin’s defenders in Hollywood want to lay the blame squarely on the armorer, who was responsible for all firearms on the set. This is appropriate but overlooks that inescapable fact that had Baldwin himself followed the simple rules of gun safety, Halyna Hutchins would still be alive.
The great thing about these rules is that they are effective collectively but also individually. In fact, you have to break all of them in order for something bad to happen. From news accounts, Baldwin broke at least two and likely three. Let’s go through them.
Always assume a firearm is loaded: Yes, this is the responsibility of the armorer, but if Baldwin had done this the whole situation would have been averted. It is amazing how many people who fancy themselves smart don’t understand this. With experienced shooters this becomes compulsive behavior, which it should. The corollary of this is that if a firearm is supposed to unloaded, check it yourself. Never trust anyone else’s work for it – look with your own eyes. Some weapons make this easy (like a revolver with the cylinder swung out), but it always has to happen.
Always point the firearm in a safe direction (aka muzzle awareness): Baldwin clearly broke this rule and I will note that while people often seem to be pointing guns at each other in movies, that’s not actually required in most cases. Reenactors in particular aim to miss but still create awesome spectacles. In an action sequence, the audience rarely has time to check the sight alignment – particularly left to right, which is impossible to gauge from most camera angles. Baldwin was pointing the weapon directly at other people.
Always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot: While it is theoretically possible that a mechanical defect caused Baldwin’s weapon to discharge on its own, it seems highly unlikely. My understanding is that he was using a single-action revolver which has to be manually cocked in order to fire. That being said, I recently had someone hand me a double-action revolver but told me it was single action only – proving why this rule is important.
People sometimes list a fourth rule about knowing your target and what’s behind it, but this isn’t applicable in this situation since nothing was supposed to come out of the weapon in question. The only reason I bring up this rule is to point out that even blatantly violating won’t result in harm unless all the other rules are broken.
Willful Ignorance Kills People
Over many years of discussing firearms, I’ve noticed a lot of otherwise educated people who remain stubbornly – even proudly – ignorant of anything about them.
I was once at a news conference where a state legislator had a variety of firearms seized by law enforcement laid out before her as examples of what she wanted ban. To the horror of everyone in the room (including the police offer standing next to her), she picked up a MAC-10 derivative and proceeded to wave it around as spoke, heedless of where she was pointing it. The officer politely but firmly took it away from her. (Don’t bother looking this up online – she was a Democrat so none of the reporters present mentioned it in their coverage.)
One need not be an experienced shooter to follow these rules. Kids learn them. Casual shooters learn them. They’re not difficult and they save lives.
Baldwin and his defenders will say that actors have to trust the armorer, but this ignores his duty to check her work. Inert ammunition is always marked in some way, either in color or by having a hole drilled in the casing. This is precisely to prevent accidents like this from happening. If Baldwin took a few minutes away from Twitter to study up on a critical part of his job, he wouldn’t be in such difficulty and a talented woman would still be alive