Alec Baldwin has now been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of a cinematographer. How does a live bullet end up on set—and ready to fire in a real gun? We look at the details of the shooting—and what it tells us about Hollywood.
Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali
Remind me about this movie…
‘Rust’ is a western set in the 1880s. Its plot is suitably ironic: The film tells the tale of a 13-year old on the run with his grandfather—after accidentally killing someone. The indie production employed 75 crew members, 22 actors and 230 “background talent” from New Mexico. Alec Baldwin plays the granddad and is credited with conceiving the movie—in partnership with director Joel Souza.
What’s most shocking here is that there wasn’t a real producer to be found on this film. Typically, you might see a financier get a full producer credit, but you would have a veteran in there as well doing the job. When you’re a producer, you’ve gotta vet anyone you haven’t worked with previously and pounce when there’s a problem.
A quick timeline: of the case is as follows:
- The filming began in New Mexico in October 2021. The tragedy occurred at 1:48 pm on October 21. Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins is killed and director Joel Souza is injured.
- Baldwin and other crew members are first sued by people on the set that day—in November, 2021. It’s the first of many legal cases that will ensue.
- In his first interview about the shooting, Baldwin claims he “didn’t pull the trigger”—and that he was told by people “within the state” that it’s “highly unlikely” he will face charges.
- In February, 2022, he is sued for wrongful death by Hutchins’ widower—and settles the suit by October.
- A damning report by New Mexico’s safety regulators places the blame squarely on Rust Movie Productions–which is fined $136,793.
- Baldwin is first charged with involuntary manslaughter in January 2023—but prosecutors drop the charges three months later, saying: “New facts were revealed that demand further investigation and forensic analysis in the case against Alec Baldwin.”
- But a new set of prosecutors change their mind in October 2023—and say they believe Baldwin has "criminal culpability" in the shooting. Their evidence is presented to a grand jury in New Mexico.
- On January 19 this year, the grand jury indicts Baldwin for involuntary manslaughter.
Ok, so what happened on the set?
Baldwin was rehearsing a scene where he is cornered in a small wooden church by law enforcement—and is trying to shoot his way out. See it below:
The crew present included the director, cinematographer, cameraman and script supervisor—all of them stuffed inside a small set. Then this happened:
Then it was time for Mr. Baldwin, 63, who was seated on a pew, to practice his scene: a close-up of his hand as he slowly reached across his chest, drew a .45 Long Colt revolver from a shoulder holster and moved it toward the lens of the camera.
What happened next: is the main point of contention. The prosecutors insist that Baldwin fired the gun—contrary to his denials:
[T]he report findings, led by Lucien Haag of Forensic Science Services in Arizona, stated that although Baldwin denied pulling the trigger, “given the tests, findings and observations reported here, the trigger had to be pulled or depressed sufficiently to release the fully cocked or retracted hammer of the evidence revolver.”
Baldwin’s version of events:
He instead claims he cocked the gun — that is, he pulled the hammer back — and that when he released it, the gun suddenly discharged on its own. Later, FBI forensics reports on the same gun apparently contradicted Baldwin, suggesting that this particular prop gun could only be discharged by pulling the trigger after the gun was cocked or partially cocked.
To be fair, the prop gun fell apart when the FBI was able to get it to fire. The forensics expert had to replace the broken gun parts to test the firearm.
The chain of custody: The real question is this: how did a live bullet end up in that gun? That remains a mystery—with everyone who had custody denying any responsibility:
Here’s how the gun travelled all the way to Baldwin:
- First, the weapons armourer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed—who is responsible for all firearms on set—checked the gun: “She looked inside the barrel, spun the barrel, visually confirmed what she believed were dummy bullets.”
- Gutierrez-Reed hands the gun over to assistant director and production safety coordinator David Halls—who takes it to the set.
- The gun was not scheduled to be used in the planned scene: “Halls was just ‘sitting in’ with it, keeping it in case it became necessary,”
- That’s exactly what happens. Baldwin decides to rehearse an unplanned scene that requires the gun.
- Halls yells ‘cold gun’ and hands it to him. The phrase indicates a gun is not loaded with live ammunition — and warns the crew that a gun is about to be discharged. The rest is tragic history.
The burden of proof: If Baldwin is convicted of involuntary manslaughter, he will face up to 18 months in jail. But the burden of proof is pretty high. The prosecution has to prove that he acted with “total disregard or indifference for the safety of others.”
But why was there a live gun on set? Isn’t that the problem?
To date, no one knows how that happened. And Baldwin has every right to argue that no one would have been hurt by dummy bullets—whether he fired the gun or not. And he has sued the producers and the armourer for handing him a loaded gun. The answer has to do with terrible workplace safety—not just on the sets of ‘Rust’ but also Hollywood at large.
The great ‘Rust’ shitshow: Let’s start with evidence that some were using the guns with live ammunition for target practice—just hours before the gun showed up on the set:
A number of crew members had taken prop guns from the New Mexico set of the indie Western — including the gun that killed Hutchins — to go “plinking,” a hobby in which people shoot at beer cans with live ammunition to pass the time, the insider said.
The shoot was understaffed. Part of the crew was on strike:
The new warrants confirmed that several members of the film’s camera crew had walked off the set earlier that day after complaining about housing, payment and working conditions—forcing producers to scramble to find a new crew.
Instead of shutting down production, the company hired non-union workers. The most damning, however, was the regulatory agency report—which uncovered a consistent pattern of negligence:
The OHSB report [concluded] … that the production “demonstrated plain indifference to the safety of employees ... failed to follow company safety procedures, which likely would have prevented the accident from occurring ... [and] “did not ensure their own safety procedures [were] followed at the worksite.” The OHSB also castigated specific producers for ignoring their employees’ repeatedly voiced concerns about on-set safety, and rushing the employees who were tasked with ensuring that safety.
Money vs safety: The shooting helped reveal one of Hollywood’s dirtiest secrets—many studios recklessly sacrifice safety to cut costs. ‘Rust’ shoot was filled with instances of unwise economies. For instance, Gutierrez-Reed was doing two jobs: props assistant and armourer—and not given adequate training to do either. There were two other accidental discharges on set—just five days before the incident that killed Hutchins. She was overtaxed and it showed:
What does seem clear is that, on this set and likely on many others, Gutierrez-Reed was one of countless crew members who were underpaid, overworked, harangued by equally frazzled supervisors, and pushed to cut corners to save money and time.
Much bigger than ‘Rust’: One of the producers—Thomasville Pictures—was known for its unsafe practices that were typical of low-budget films:
Crew members and industry veterans say [Thomasville is] emblematic of a flourishing trend in filmmaking in which ambitious projects are shot on shrinking budgets with overworked staffers in states like New Mexico and Georgia, which offer attractive tax breaks and have fewer regulations than California.
The studio was also known for hiring an underpaid, inexperienced crew for key jobs—and making them take on “roles that they weren’t prepared for, piling on responsibilities in order to save time and money.”
Not helping matters: The rise of streaming has vastly increased the need for fresh content—series, movies, documentaries±but there aren’t enough experienced crew members to go around.
The bottomline: It’s unlikely that Baldwin will end up in jail—perhaps rightfully so. But Hollywood’s mindset appears to remain unchanged. The new safety laws—put in place after the shooting—were successfully diluted by the studios. And we’re back to business as usual… until the next disaster. Also: Why is no one interested in finding out who brought the live bullet to a film shoot?
Vox has the best, most comprehensive overview. New York Times has a blow-by-blow account of what happened on the set. The Guardian has a long list of lawsuits associated with ‘Rust’. IndieWire and The Wrap are excellent in laying an industry-wide pattern of negligence. Buzzfeed News focuses on Thomasville. Hollywood Insider looks at previous deaths on movie sets. The Atlantic (splainer gift link) has an excellent piece on gun culture in Hollywood.