The long, tragic history of prop gun accidents on movie and TV sets: A timeline

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Actor Alec Baldwin
Alec Baldwin. (Associated Press)

The tragic news Thursday that Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun on the "Rust" movie set, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injuring director Joel Souza, has amplified long-simmering concerns about the continued use of the kinds of prop guns and blank cartridges that have led to so many deaths.

Special effects are so advanced that many feel the risk of using them is unnecessary. Craig Zobel, who directed HBO's "Mare of Easttown," tweeted Friday that blanks should be outlawed in favor of computer effects. He noted that the gunshots on that series were digital.

Prop guns are often real guns adapted to use blanks and are generally treated with the utmost care on film sets. Prop masters in charge of the guns will require they be checked in and out like real guns, and if a crew member is going to be in close proximity to a prop gun, plastic shields and eye and ear protection often are used. The Industry Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee for the motion picture and television industry's first safety bulletin is titled, "Recommendations for safety with firearms and use of 'blank ammunition,'" and carefully details these safety measures including training for those handling prop weapons and explicit reminders to never point a weapon at another person on set.

Nonetheless, incidents can happen, and some have been fatal. Here is a timeline of accidents and fatalities caused by the use of prop guns over the years:

"The Captive," directed by Cecil B. DeMille, 1915: An extra named Charles Chandler was shot in the head and killed by a rifle that was supposed to be reloaded with blanks but mistakenly contained a live round. The tragic mix-up happened during a scene where soldiers are shown shooting at a door, during which time DeMille had them use live rounds. In the following scene, when the door gets broken down, they were supposed to switch to blanks.

“The General,” directed by Buster Keaton, 1926: Assistant director Harry Barnes was shot in the face with a blank round during the filming of Keaton’s comedy in Oregon. Fortunately, he was not in close range and he wasn’t badly injured. During the same shoot, Keaton was knocked unconscious by a prop cannon that fired while he was standing close by.

“Cover Up,” TV series created by Glen A. Larson, 1984: During the filming of the seventh episode of the series, star Jon-Erik Hexum was supposed to load bullets into a .44 Magnum handgun. The gun was real, the bullets were blanks. During a delay in filming, Hexum fooled around with the gun. He took out all but one round and spun the cartridge as if he were playing Russian roulette. He then placed the gun to his temple and fired. The impact of the paper wadding used to seal the cartridge pushed a piece of his skull into his brain, causing massive hemorrhaging. Hexum died six days later.

“The Crow,” directed by Alex Proyas, 1993: On March 31 during filming for star Brandon Lee’s death scene, Lee was accidentally killed when a .44 Magnum revolver that was supposed to contain only blank rounds discharged a real bullet from an improperly made dummy round. Lee, the son of martial-arts star Bruce Lee, was hit in the stomach and did not get up after the scene wrapped. He was rushed to the hospital but died six hours later.

"Revenge of the Scorpion," 2003: An extra named Antonio Velasco Gutierrez was shot twice with a .38 caliber handgun by star Flavio Peniche during the filming of the straight-to-video film in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The gun was supposed to be loaded with blanks but wasn't. Variety reported at the time that the film's property master, known only as "The Brush," was wanted for questioning by police after fleeing the scene in the wake of the shooting.

"Cardinal," TV series created by Aubrey Nealon, 2016: Actor Brendan Fletcher ("The Revenant") was hospitalized during filming for this Canadian crime-drama series after being injured in the throat by a gun that was supposed to be emptied of blanks but wasn't. A Canadian newspaper reported that the injury occurred after Fletcher's character was supposed to be shot in the mouth and that he suffered a laceration and burn in the mouth and jaw area. There was reportedly no wadding for the blanks.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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