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Learning from tragedy: Strengthening gun safety in the aftermath of the ‘Rust’ incident

Amid the legal proceedings and media scrutiny, it is crucial not to lose sight of the fundamental firearm safety rules that might have averted this tragic event

rust shooting

The “Rust” case, which unfolded in October 2021, involved actor Alec Baldwin on the set of the film “Rust,” where a tragic incident occurred during a rehearsal.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

As I continue my appearances on Court TV discussing the tragic events surrounding the “Rust” case, one glaring truth becomes increasingly apparent: adherence to basic firearms safety could have prevented the devastation that unfolded. Amid the legal intricacies and media frenzy, the root cause remains rooted in a failure to uphold fundamental safety principles.

The “Rust” case, which unfolded in October 2021, involved actor Alec Baldwin on the set of the film “Rust,” where a tragic incident occurred during a rehearsal. Baldwin, handling a prop firearm, unintentionally discharged it, resulting in the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injuring director Joel Souza. This event garnered widespread attention, sparking inquiries into safety protocols on film sets and firearm handling in the entertainment industry.

Investigations by law enforcement and industry regulatory bodies were launched to understand the circumstances leading to the fatal discharge, revealing potential breaches in safety procedures, including the presence of live ammunition contrary to industry standards. The tragedy resulted in a New Mexico jury finding Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the armorer on the set, guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Halyna Hutchins.

This tragedy prompted discussions on the importance of firearm safety, advocating for stricter protocols and reforms within the film industry to prevent similar incidents. Ultimately, the “Rust” case serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of lax safety practices and emphasizes the critical need for adherence to established protocols, particularly in environments where firearms are utilized, while also contributing to broader societal conversations about gun safety and responsibilities surrounding firearm use.

In hindsight, a life could have been spared had the following four cardinal rules been diligently followed. These rules serve as a poignant reminder of the indispensable importance of gun safety.

1. Always keep firearms pointed in a safe direction

The first rule of gun safety is both elementary and non-negotiable. Regardless of circumstances, a firearm should always be pointed in a direction where an unintended discharge would cause minimal harm. This foundational principle serves as the primary defense against accidents and mishaps. Tragically, in the “Rust” case, a failure to uphold this rule resulted in catastrophic consequences. Had the firearm been consistently aimed in a safe direction, the ensuing tragedy may have been averted.

2. Treat all guns as though they are loaded

No assumption is more dangerous than assuming a firearm is unloaded. Even if one believes a gun to be devoid of ammunition, treating it as loaded at all times is imperative. This mindset fosters a culture of caution and vigilance, mitigating the risk of accidental discharge. Regrettably, complacency regarding the loaded status of firearms played a significant role in the “Rust” case. Embracing the principle of treating all guns as loaded is a steadfast safeguard against avoidable accidents.

3. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot

The index finger serves as the gateway to a firearm’s potential. Therefore, it must remain outside the trigger guard until the precise moment when firing is intended and justified. This discipline demands mindfulness and self-control, which are indispensable for safe firearm handling. In the “Rust” case, a momentary lapse in adhering to this rule resulted in dire consequences. A steadfast commitment to keeping the finger off the trigger until ready to shoot is paramount for preventing unintended discharges.

4. Always be sure of your target and what’s beyond it

The final rule encapsulates the holistic responsibility of firearm owners. Before discharging a firearm, one must determine the target and what lies beyond it. This precautionary measure ensures that unintended targets or bystanders are not endangered by stray bullets.

Sadly, in the “Rust” case, a failure to exercise this fundamental rule led to irreversible harm. Maintaining an unwavering awareness of the target and its surroundings is essential for responsible gun ownership.

The “Rust” case serves as a sobering reminder of the critical importance of gun safety. Amid the legal proceedings and media scrutiny, it is crucial not to lose sight of the foundational principles that could have prevented such a tragedy. By consistently adhering to the four cardinal rules of gun safety — always keeping firearms pointed in a safe direction, treating all guns as loaded, keeping the finger off the trigger until ready to shoot, and being sure of the target and what’s beyond it — we can strive to prevent future accidents and preserve lives. Let us honor the victims of the “Rust” case by committing ourselves to unwavering diligence in firearm safety.

Whether one is a fervent advocate of firearms rights, a casual owner, a temporary borrower, or a professional actor utilizing them as props, these rules must be upheld without exception. The inherent danger posed by firearms necessitates a universal commitment to safety protocols, irrespective of individual circumstances or beliefs.

Regardless of one’s stance on firearms, the potential for tragedy remains constant if safety measures are disregarded. A firearm, whether owned, borrowed, or utilized as a prop, retains its capacity for lethal harm if mishandled. Therefore, it is incumbent upon every individual entrusted with a firearm to diligently adhere to the established safety principles.

In the “Rust” case context, the tragic consequences of neglecting these rules reverberate far beyond personal opinions or professional obligations. They underscore the critical importance of unwavering vigilance and responsibility in firearm handling, regardless of the circumstances. By internalizing and consistently applying these rules, we can collectively mitigate the risk of accidents and safeguard against preventable tragedies.

Firearm safety is not a matter of preference or ideology — it is an imperative dictated by the gravity of the consequences at stake. Whether for personal protection, recreational shooting, or professional endeavors, the obligation to prioritize safety remains unwavering. Firearm safety transcends individual perspectives or affiliations.

Prosecutor Kari Morrissey described “constant, never-ending safety failures” on the set of “Rust” and an “astonishing lack of diligence” with gun safety
After charges were dismissed last year, prosecutors assert that Baldwin caused cinematographer Halyna Hutchins’ death by negligence and disregard for safety
“You tell me what to do,” actor Alec Baldwin says to a detective after an unintentional, fatal shooting on set
“Every film/TV set that uses guns, fake or otherwise, should have a police officer on set, hired by the production, to specifically monitor weapons safety,” the actor tweeted
“There was, at minimum, complacency on the set,” said Sheriff Adan Mendoza

Jason Piccolo is a retired federal law enforcement agent and former U.S. Army Infantry Captain with wartime service in Iraq in 2006. Jason hosts The Protectors Podcast and can be seen regularly on Court TV.