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Jeff Simon: Tragedy on the set of 'Rust' brings back long-ago lessons of respect for guns

Jeff Simon: Tragedy on the set of 'Rust' brings back long-ago lessons of respect for guns

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Halyna Hutchins vigil held, colleague vows to get 'justice' for late cinematographer (copy)

Halyna Hutchins was accidentally shot and killed on the set of the movie "Rust."

I never knew his full name. I knew his first name but it happened so long ago that it's long gone too. Let's call him Frank.

Frank was the first person I thought of when reading the news about Alec Baldwin's accidental fatal shooting of 42-year-old cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the film "Rust" in Santa Fe, N.M.

Frank was the riflery counselor for the sleepaway Adirondack summer camp I went to for four years in the mid-'50s. The most salient detail I remember about him was being told he was a Korean War veteran.

And yet there he was teaching spoiled brats like me and my fellow campers how to shoot .22 rifles for fun at summer camp.

I was weirdly proficient at doing it. Before the summer was over, I had gotten one of the more advanced "sharpshooter" medals they were giving out. I didn't wear glasses back then and it seems more of my bullet holes hit the target than some other guys in my group. Blind luck, I say now.

Frank had absolutely no interest in any transient feeling of fun that might accidentally befall one of us who had already spent years shooting cap guns and wearing toy holsters with toy guns in them. He wanted one thing and one thing only: respect for the weapon and maybe even fear. When some of the wiseacres among us made jokes about how much fun it would be to to plug a squirrel, he made it clear that none of us was to aim at anything other than the targets he had nailed up. He instructed us not to even touch our rifles when he was nailing targets up.

He understood preteen brats all too well. We were lucky if we were even allowed to breathe with the rifle safeties off. He preferred us to keep them on when we weren't officially shooting.

I had to grow up a few more years to understand the reason guns were invented was to kill and maim living creatures, not to shoot at paper targets.

Frank's pitiless gun puritanism made an impression on me – especially when I envision him just a few years earlier training his gun sights on human beings known as "the enemy."

There weren't enough people like Frank on the set of "Rust." If there had been, assistant director David Halls wouldn't have been able to give Baldwin a gun with the announcement that it was "a cold gun" –  one without live rounds in it.

The last thing I would ever do is pretend I know all the esoteric ins and outs of gun wielding on movie sets.

But I can't for the life of me think of a single reason why anyone on a movie set should have had a single round of live ammo. I don't care how much gunplay was in this movie; it should have been with blanks or computer graphics.

The news stories from the beginning have been progressively sickening. The latest ones report that Halls was previously fired from a project called "Freedom's Path" when a crew member was injured by the accidental discharge of a prop weapon under Halls' control.

We are learning a lot about gun protocols on film sets these days. Some of the "armorers" – the all-important checkers of all weapons – have said there is no such thing as a "prop gun." It's either a prop which cannot fire real bullets or it's a gun. Those that only shoot blanks will do nicely.

It's an old story that indie film productions cut corners wherever possible. Money is always tight. Years without major troubles could give a lot of people assurance enough to flout rules and customs. Bravado on Western film sets must be a double temptation – the conflation of fact and fiction by people inventing a fictional world. Even in my ignorance, I long ago learned that no one on film sets is ever supposed to aim a gun at anyone directly, loaded or not, lest the worst happen.

I can imagine some film crews asking themselves "why make Westerns" if all guns are to be handled like scalpels during liver transplants?

The answer seems to be how few people actually do. My old camp counselor Frank would insist that a gun is not an instrument of fun like a baseball bat or a tennis racquet. It was created to maim and deal death, not to enjoy shooting targets.

The number of fatal accidents on film sets over the years is surprisingly large when you research it. Great film subjects like airplanes, speeding cars and guns are dangerous. Bad things can happen accidentally, even when all precautions are conscientiously taken.

The great director Howard Hawks lost his own brother in a midair plane crash that took place on a Hawks movie. The most horrible disasters in the past 50 years were the 1982 deaths of fine 53-year-old actor Vic Morrow and two child actors on the set of John Landis' episode of the "Twilight Zone" movie.

Morrow and the kids were on foot supposed to be fleeing Vietnamese helicopters. In the subsequent trial – in which everyone was acquitted – testimony revealed that Landis kept requesting the helicopter pilot to fly lower. Morrow and one of the kids were instantly beheaded by the chopper blade. The other child was crushed to death when the helicopter collapsed on top of him.

What had happened was that the special effects smoke around them was so thick the helicopter pilot lost control. What they had done, in effect, was to EXACTLY reproduce the circumstances of wartime. The consequences reproduced those of wartime.

We don't know exactly what happened on the set of "Rust." What's certain is this: A talented cinematographer lost her life for no good reason.

What's likely is guns on movie sets will never be treated the same ways again in American movies and TV. Already, the TV show "The Rookie" has officially banned live rounds on sets.

The director Joel Souza, 48, is the fellow whose whose previous film "Crown Vic" was made, to a great extent, in Buffalo, somewhat bizarrely doubling for L.A. at night.

If "Rust" is never completed and seen, Hutchins won't completely have died for nothing. She's likely to have saved other lives without anyone knowing it.

But then, everything about this calamity is awful and every new development threatens to make it worse.

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Semi-Retired Columnist and Critic

Jeff Simon began working at The News as a copyboy 57 years ago. Since that time, he has been closely involved in all aspects of The News' cultural coverage – as critic, columnist and Arts and Books editor for 25 years.

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