Article 058 – Gun Safety Failure:  The “Rust” movie set tragedy highlights fatal flaws in traditional gun safety rules.

Thanks to an unending stream of overzealous news coverage, it is likely that everyone in the United States, perhaps even the First World, is now aware that actor Alec Baldwin recently shot and killed a cinematographer on the set of the western movie “Rust.”

Some combination of Hollywood Union disputes, politics, and personal drama seem to dominate the majority of the airtime. Some of this may have actual news value. Some does not, at least in our opinion.

In any case, the focus of the public narrative threatens to obscure a real opportunity to learn something of value from this tragedy – something that could legitimately save dozens, perhaps even hundreds of lives over the next decade.

During a significant amount of the news coverage of this incident, numerous commentators have made quips about “following the four basic gun safety rules.”

In fact, this tragedy, perhaps more than any other public event in recent memory, clearly and viscerally demonstrates how the traditional model of gun safety is fundamentally flawed. Reliance on “the four safety rules” to provide gun safety actively contributes to the factors that result in many gun safety mishaps and all that goes with them—death included.

The standard model of gun safety is based on four fundamental rules that were developed and promulgated by industry legend and Gunsite Academy founder Jeff Cooper.

Widely considered the father of modern weapons craft and unarguably one of the most influential figures in the profession of arms over the past century, Cooper was a graduate of Stanford University, and U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel.  

He combined his military experiences, academic and literary capacity, and deep personal passion for firearms and firearms training to help produce transformative and positive change in the firearms industry.

A prolific author, Cooper also gifted the shooting world with many concepts still in use today such as his color-coded combat mindset and the four fundamental rules of firearms safety. These are:

  1. All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.
  2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. (For those who insist that this particular gun is unloaded, see Rule 1.)
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target. This is the Golden Rule.
  4. Identify your target, and what is behind it. Never shoot at anything that you have not positively identified.

The four rules proved effective at reducing mishaps during range training and were broadly adopted by the industry at large.

Unfortunately, with all due respect to Colonel Cooper (whom we greatly admire, lest there be any confusion on this point), these rules, and the safety they provide, quickly fall apart upon departure from the controlled training environment of the firing range.

Examine the first two. All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are. And, Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.

These seem simple enough to understand. It is also true that if followed religiously, these principles will prevent virtually all firearms mishaps. After all, who picks up a gun and points it at a friend or co-worker, much less points it at him or her and also pulls the trigger?

Actors involved in filming a gunfight scene do—for one.

It is worth reviewing the task that was occurring when the fatal rounds were fired. If news reports are accurate, Baldwin was apparently rehearsing for a scene in which he would draw and fire the weapon in the direction of the camera—and camera crew. 

Even removing the camera crew from the camera vicinity for this scene does not fit a strict interpretation of these rules. Expensive camera gear is certainly not something one would point a loaded gun at, nor something that one would intend to destroy.

This action, fundamentally, cannot be accomplished while following the first two rules. It is noteworthy, however, that they are apparently a part of the safety recommendations established by Contract Services Administration Trust Fund and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).

Even a loose interpretation of these rules would preclude any scenes in which a firearm were pointed at another actor. It is further noteworthy that lawyers for the armorer on the film, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, claim that she “regularly emphasized to never point a firearm at a person,” although it is difficult to imagine how a western movie (or any movie) that involves gunplay could, in fact, be filmed while adhering to this instruction.

Consider the following still picture from the James Bond film Golden Eye, as but one example.

Even the use of weapon facsimiles, at least ones realistic enough to pass muster in a modern film, does not address these issues.

For cinematic applications a weapon facsimile requires some manner of operational function (blank firing, slide operation, removeable magazine, operable trigger and the like) for most filming requirements. Any facsimile would therefore require a physical inspection prior to any use that was at least as thorough as checking a real weapon for live rounds.

We are neither Hollywood consultants, nor cinematography experts; however, we do have some practical experience in this area. In fact, we quite recently worked with a film crew while shooting a short teaser video for our forthcoming NURO™ Shooting System (Patent Pending). NURO™ integrates visual skills, thinking, and decision-making and de-escalation into ALL firearms training and qualification. (We can now qualify police to stop shooting, for example.)

If you take the time to watch the video, you will see a number of scenes where the muzzle of a firearm is pointed directly at the camera. A plastic “blue gun” was used in some of these shots (to illustrate a method of use for the training system). Real weapons were used in others. There was no other way to produce the video.

This production was conducted safely. All cast and film crew, some of whom were familiar with firearms and some of whom were not, were completely comfortable with the operation and also were personally involved in verifying a safe working environment. However, we simply could not have produced this video spot while adhering to Cooper’s four fundamental rules.

While the “Rust” movie set tragedy highlights but one poignant example, the simple fact is that the traditional model of firearms safety fails catastrophically once one leaves the confines of a purpose-built range. In fact, virtually every gun owner violates these rules frequently, even while simply cleaning and reassembling / function checking his or her weapon after a day on the range.

If you do not follow something frequently (especially if you cannot follow it) then it must not really be a rule. We also must point out that when the “rule” upon which the safety of human life is based must be frequently violated out of necessity by every person who uses the tools for which the rule is intended, then the integrity of the safety system itself is severely compromised—irreparably so in our opinion.

“We are here today to replicate a gunfight. Now treat these weapons as if they are loaded and do not point them at other people.” Could anything possibly be more structurally doomed to fail?

In order to fix these issues, the safety system itself must be replaced.

Some sixteen thousand people in the United States are injured and more than six hundred are killed accidentally with guns every year.  While these numbers are relatively insignificant when viewed against the overall numbers of accidental injuries and deaths per year, they are nevertheless far too high.

This is especially true since every single one of these accidents involves a tool that is commonly known to be extremely dangerous unlike, say, a bathtub or stepladder.  Each one of these accidents is also 100% preventable.

These numbers will never go to zero; however, driving them sharply in that direction should be one of our highest industry priorities whether we are instructors or simply gun owners and shooters. 

With an eye towards accomplishing this objective, we have published two books: Mentoring Shooters (intended for experienced gun owners and instructors) and our new book Becoming Shooters, which is written specifically for new gun owners. We also have a comprehensive video-based handgun handling and safety course that we provide unlimited free access to here.

In this article we will provide only a brief synopsis of our recommended safety model and demonstrate how its use could have avoided the recent tragic death on the set of “Rust.” For more detailed explanations, and resources, please see one or more of the references listed above.

In the Building Shooters firearms-safety model, we have two rules. These rules always apply. It doesn’t matter what you are doing. You can be cleaning your gun in the basement; dry-firing; plinking tin cans; hunting; or shooting it out in a running, urban gun battle. It does not matter; these rules always apply.

Firearms-Safety Rule 1:  Always know where the muzzle is pointed; point it there intentionally.

Firearms-Safety Rule 2: Never place a finger on the trigger unless intending, or willing, to press it.

The Building Shooters model for firearms safety also includes three recommendations. The difference between the rules and the recommendations is that the rules always apply. The recommendations are things someone should train to do (and should do), but that may not apply in all situations.

Firearms-Safety Recommendation 1: Check the condition of a firearm each and every time it is handled.

Firearms-Safety Recommendation 2: Do not place a finger on the trigger unless the sights are aligned on a target.

Firearms-Safety Recommendation 3: Be sure of the target and what is in front of and beyond it.

Let us compare how these two differing models of weapon safety could impact an event similar to the one upon that occurred on the set of “Rust.”

Imagine being on a film set as the lead actor in an action movie. The scene being filmed involves you drawing a handgun and firing it directly into the lens of the camera – the director wants to capture the alignment of the gun sights with your pupil for the shot.

You walk onto the set and receive your safety brief. You are told to treat every gun as if it were loaded, to never point a gun at anything you don’t intend to destroy – obviously to include any other person – to keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target, and to be sure of your target and its background. 

You are handed a gun, told it is unloaded / safe, and then told to draw it and point it at the camera—with a cinematographer and film crew standing behind it.

“I can’t.” You might say, “I would never point a loaded gun at that camera, and certainly not when people are around it. I must treat this gun as if it is loaded. Besides, I do not intend to destroy the camera or the people around it. We must cancel this scene. Film me from behind instead while I point at a wall.”

How long do you anticipate your acting career would last? 

You are more likely to say, “Is this gun safe?” 

“Yes,” is the response, “I told you it’s a cold gun.”

Listening to the director, you draw the gun, point it towards the camera, and press the trigger…

Let us consider now a different approach.

This time you receive your safety brief and you are told to always be aware of where the muzzle is pointed, and to point it there intentionally. You are told to keep you finger off the trigger unless you are ready or willing to press it, and that each and every time you handle a gun, you must check its condition.

You are handed a gun in preparation for the scene. You immediately point the muzzle safely at the ground, keep your finger off the trigger and check its condition. You ask several members of the film crew to come over and verify its condition with you before working on the scene since the muzzle will be pointed in their direction.

As you check the cylinder, you notice that there are rounds loaded in the revolver. You remove the rounds to verify whether or not they are dummy rounds, blanks, or live rounds, and realize that you and the film crew are all unsure about whether or not the rounds are real.  The director calls for the on-set armorer, and a potentially deadly mishap is very likely averted.

The tragedy on the set of “Rust” is but one high profile example of a situation where the standard approach to firearms safety rules does not help avert the disaster. Instead, the standard approach contributes to it by setting an expectation of oblivious incompetence and then attempting to compensate for it by basing life-critical rules on a false assumption—when the truth can be easily verified in seconds.

Even worse, adhering to the rules upon which this safety methodology hinges often precludes performance of the primary task that one is handling the gun to accomplish. This, more often than not, results in the rule upon which the safety of human life hinges being immediately ignored.

The simple fact is that our industry standard approach to firearms safety works very well on a shooting range but fails catastrophically for most other applications—sometimes with deadly consequences.

Fundamentally changing our approach to firearms safety and basing it on training, competence, and verification rather than expectations of incompetence and false assumptions will save lives.

What are we waiting for?

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Author, Training at the Speed of Life
Co-Founder of Simunition