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Alec Baldwin’s criminal charges and Rust’s chaotic production, explained

The 2021 shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was an accident everyone saw coming.

Local 600 International Cinematographers Guild Hosts Candlelight Vigil Honoring Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins
Candles are placed in front of a photo of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins during a vigil held in her honor on October 23, 2021 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Sam Wasson/Getty Images
Aja Romano is a culture reporter for Vox, focusing on criticism and the ethics of culture. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot.

By all accounts, it was an accident everyone saw coming — but the questions and chaos surrounding the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins have only grown more numerous in the 18 months since the fatal incident.

Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies announced on January 19, 2023, that the county would bring charges against Alec Baldwin for the cinematographer’s death. Hutchins was killed in October 2021 on a ranch near Santa Fe, after a prop gun Baldwin was holding accidentally discharged while filming the movie Rust. The chief weapons handler for the film was also charged, and the film’s director Joel Souza was also non-fatally injured in the shooting.

Carmack-Altwies announced in a brief public statement that Baldwin and armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed would each be charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter for their roles in Hutchins’s death.

The charges carry separate penalties of up to five years or 18 months in prison. On January 31, Baldwin was formally charged.

“On my watch, no one is above the law, and everyone deserves justice,” Carmack-Altwies stated in her initial press conference.

“We’re trying to definitely make it clear that everybody’s equal under the law, including A-list actors like Alec Baldwin,” special prosecutor Andrea Reeb added to the New York Times. Baldwin is known for being a firebrand on and off set, with his role as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live raising the ire of many right-wing viewers who view him as emblematic of Hollywood’s liberal elite.

This development follows a lengthy investigation into the incident by the Santa Fe sheriff’s office that concluded in October 2022. The report, which was crucial in Carmack-Altwies and Reeb’s decision to file charges, focused on lapses in safety procedures on the film’s highly criticized set, though it failed to determine the most crucial factor — exactly how loaded guns with live ammunition made it onto the set. This issue remains unsettled despite numerous investigations and lawsuits surrounding the production environment on the Rust set, alongside conflicting views of the accident itself.

And despite these new charges, the assignment of blame has proved elusive on a set plagued by claims of labor exploitation, rushed work, unsafe conditions, and “very fast and loose” handling of weaponry.

At the center of the case are two unsolvable mysteries

There are two questions this investigation does not seem poised to answer: Did Baldwin pull the trigger? And how did live rounds get on set to begin with?

No one disputes the broad facts of what happened on October 21, 2021. Prior to the filming of the scene, Gutierrez-Reed, a props assistant who doubled as the on-set armorer, examined the gun, which was a replica of a .45 Long Colt. She looked inside the barrel, spun the barrel, visually confirmed what she believed were dummy bullets — fake bullets containing no live ammunition — and handed the gun over to assistant director and production safety coordinator David Halls to take to the filming location. (Halls avoided facing trial by pleading guilty to negligent use of a deadly weapon.)

Safety protocol calls for Gutierrez-Reed to have checked all the bullets in front of Baldwin herself — and she claims to have intended to do so, asking Halls to let her know if Baldwin required her to come down to the filming location and directly examine the gun. But according to a lawsuit later filed by Gutierrez-Reed, the gun wasn’t actually intended to be used in that afternoon’s filming, and Hall was just “sitting in” with it, keeping it in case it became necessary for later use — which it did when Baldwin decided to rehearse an unscheduled scene that required the gun.

At that point, Halls should have summoned Gutierrez-Reed to come back and further examine the bullets inside the gun. Instead, he yelled, “Cold gun!” — “cold” meaning a gun that was not loaded with live ammunition — to warn the crew that a gun was about to be discharged. Then he handed it over to Baldwin. While Baldwin was following Hutchins’s instructions to aim the gun toward the camera, the gun discharged, striking both her and Souza.

Baldwin has always been adamant that he never pulled the trigger. He has explained that he would never pull the trigger on a prop gun while it was pointed at another human (though safety protocols forbid pointing any prop gun at any human for any reason), and that the gun discharged independently.

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.

Yet those reports, according to Baldwin’s attorney, downplayed the fact that FBI investigators tried repeatedly to discharge it and were unable to do so, either by pulling the trigger or through any other means. “The gun fired in testing only one time — without having to pull the trigger — when the hammer was pulled back and the gun broke in two different places,” attorney Luke Nikas stated. “The FBI was unable to fire the gun in any prior test, even when pulling the trigger, because it was in such poor condition.” If both of these claims are accurate, then the question of how the gun discharged is a complete toss-up, since it seems both improbable that the gun could have discharged without being fired and yet equally improbable that the gun could have been fired to begin with.

The assumption that Baldwin must have unsafely handled the weapon partially led Hutchins’s family to file a lawsuit against him in February 2022. That suit, which has since been settled, named Baldwin, Gutierrez-Reed, the ammo supplier, and a litany of Rust producers but took as its primary claim the allegation that Baldwin “recklessly shot and killed Halyna Hutchins,” and that he along with the staff had “failed to perform industry standard safety checks and follow basic gun safety rules while using real guns to produce the movie Rust, with fatal consequences.” Baldwin filed his own lawsuit in November 2022 against Gutierrez-Reed and the Rust producers, alleging that they were culpable for handing him a loaded gun to begin with.

And he has a point: If the gun had contained blanks when discharged — if it had actually been a “cold” gun when Halls handed it over to Baldwin — Hutchins would still be alive.

So how did a gun filled with live ammunition make it onto the set? This is where things get a lot more complicated — and we see a lot more finger-pointing.

No one can explain how the live ammo wound up on set

While someone obviously physically brought live ammo to the set, no one seems to know who it was. A search warrant filed in October 2021 speculated that Gutierrez-Reed might have accidentally purchased live ammunition along with dummy bullets from the gun supplier, PDQ Arm and Prop LLC, and its owner Seth Kenney. And Gutierrez-Reed speculated to investigators that live ammo had been “mixed in” with dummy bullets. In January 2022, she filed a lawsuit against the company responsible for supplying guns and ammunition to the film production, The suit paints a picture of a chaotic production full of underpaid and overworked staff — Gutierrez-Reed was to be paid just $7,500 for doing her two jobs on the micro-budget set — and contains ominously passive language about the source of the ammo, indicating that a mysterious box of dummy rounds for the prop gun “appeared on set” the day of the shooting.

Gutierrez-Reed all but directly implies in the suit — which appears to be stalled — that the production’s primary prop manager conspired with Kenney to bring live ammo onto the set in order to, essentially, set Gutierrez-Reed up. This, she argues, was because Kenney and the prop manager both resented her because she had criticized the prop manager for her role in one of the two previous accidental gun discharges on set.

However, as part of the discovery in that lawsuit, texts from months earlier between Kenney and Gutierrez-Reed were made public — texts from a different movie set — in which Gutierrez-Reed expressed her interest in using prop guns to fire “hot rounds,” or live ammunition, after hours and not while on set.

Not only that, but a report by The Wrap alleged that earlier on the morning of the incident, crew members on the set took prop guns — which aren’t supposed to be used to fire anything but blanks — to use in a game of “plinking,” which involved discharging live ammo in rounds of target practice.

So was Gutierrez-Reed the person responsible for “mixing” ammo? Was it assorted crew members who took the guns, filled them with live ammo, and then replaced them without anyone being the wiser?

This is all as murky as everything else. The only thing reports make clear: All this confusion took place on a set with disastrous working conditions.

Hutchins’s death was part of a disastrous working environment

Most of the public information about the conditions on the Rust set comes from a report completed in April 2022 by the New Mexico Occupational Health & Safety Bureau (OHSB). As a result of the OHSB’s investigation, the agency fined Rust about $137,000 for workplace safety violations, the maximum amount allowed under state law.

The OHSB report found multiple problems with Rust’s on-set production environment, concluding 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. One employee who voiced concerns and was overridden was Gutierrez-Reed.

“Hannah was tasked with doing two jobs including props assistant and the very important job as armorer but not given adequate time and training days to do so,” Gutierrez-Reed’s attorney told ABC News, “despite repeated requests or the respect required of the armorer’s position and responsibilities.”

Indeed, a week before the shooting, Rust’s line producer, Gabrielle Pickle, emailed Gutierrez-Reed to reprimand her for spending too much time on her armory duties — which included inspecting all weapons to ensure their safety — and not enough on her other duties as prop assistant. Gutierrez-Reed replied that “since we’ve started I’ve had a lot of days where my job should only be to focus on the guns and everyone’s safety,” and that “there are working guns on set every day and those are ultimately going to be a priority because when they are not that’s when dangerous mistakes can happen.”

According to the OHSB report, there were two other accidental discharges on set, both on October 16, five days before the incident that killed Hutchins. A third dangerous incident involved a special effects explosive device accidentally exploding. It was partly in response to these incidents that one of Hutchins’s camera assistants, Lane Luper, quit the job the day before Hutchins’s death — citing rampant safety violations in his resignation email, among many other exploitative work conditions.

Another crew member, Jonas Huerta, also resigned the same day, again citing exploitative, unsafe, and rushed working conditions. “I also feel anxious on set,” he wrote in his resignation email. “I’ve seen first hand our AD [the assistant director, Halls] rush to get shots and he skips over important protocols.”

The charges related to Baldwin seem to involve his specific act in handling the weapon, rather than his broader role as one of the film’s producers. But the lack of charges filed against any of the other producers on set, several of whom more directly oversaw the frazzled, unsafe filming conditions that led to the multiple accidental weapons discharges, is puzzling. The OHSB report criticized specific producers, including head producer Ryan Smith, for failing to take workplace safety concerns seriously despite repeated complaints by staff. Pickle also faced scrutiny for actively scolding Gutierrez-Reed, including ordering her off armorer duty and limiting her time spent training the cast and crew on how to safely handle weapons.

It seems baffling, given this type of evidence, that Santa Fe prosecutors opted not to bring charges of negligence against the producers — charges that seem clearly provable according to the available evidence. The charges of involuntary manslaughter against Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed seem much harder to prove given how confused their roles were — though the uncertainty hasn’t quashed right-wing pundits like Tucker Carlson from arguing that Baldwin embodies Hollywood’s hypocrisy in decrying gun violence only to defend their own right to use guns in entertainment.

As for who supplied the live ammo, the new charges don’t seem to take up that mystery at all. An attorney for Gutierrez-Reed told CNN in August that they had repeatedly asked investigators to do forensics testing on the bullets to try to determine who actually handled them, but authorities had declined, and conducting such an investigation at this late date would likely be fruitless.

It’s possible that new, clarifying information will be revealed during a trial — though the likelihood of such a trial happening anytime soon seems faint. Baldwin’s lawyer, Nikas, has vowed to “fight these charges,” as he told the New York Times. “Mr. Baldwin had no reason to believe there was a live bullet in the gun — or anywhere on the movie set,” he said. “He relied on the professionals with whom he worked, who assured him the gun did not have live rounds.”

But the professionals with whom Baldwin worked were, at least on this set and likely on many others, underpaid, overworked, harangued by equally frazzled supervisors, and cutting corners at every turn to save money and time. Five days before Hutchins’s death, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) narrowly avoided an employee strike in response to pervasive exploitative conditions throughout Hollywood, including the prevalence of minimum wage gigs, stretched workers, strenuous labor conditions, and wide gender gaps in pay rates and opportunities.

Hutchins’s death, as tragic as it is, seems to be the latest culmination of terrible working conditions found not just on set but throughout the industry. The advent of streaming media, the strain of supplying content in a post-pandemic world, and a widespread culture of demanding tireless work for little pay all contribute to the kind of callous disregard for safety and for employees that resulted in the Rust working environment.

And while unionization efforts are bringing some meaningful change to the industry, Hutchins’s death arguably stands as a far greater indictment of the industry as a whole than individual indictments against Rust’s on-set players could ever be.

Update, January 31, 4:55 pm ET: This story was originally published on January 23 and has been updated to include the formal charges against Baldwin.