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It's possible, but not likely, Alec Baldwin's gun fired without him pulling the trigger

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  • Alec Baldwin
    Alec Baldwin

Alec Baldwin made a surprising claim last week during his first major interview since he shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the film "Rust": He never pulled the trigger.

It's a surprising claim because it's also an improbable one.

Despite how often people will say a gun just "went off" on its own, it's an extremely uncommon phenomenon. Modern guns have internal safeties that make it impossible for the gun to fire without the trigger being pulled – even in cases where the gun is dropped while loaded. Even antique gun designs have features that prevent the gun from firing on its own.

Baldwin said the gun went off after he pulled the hammer back and released it. “I cock the gun. I go, ‘Can you see that? Can you see that? Can you see that?’ ” Baldwin told ABC News. “And then I let go of the hammer of the gun, and the gun goes off. I let go of the hammer of the gun, the gun goes off.”

What gun was Alec Baldwin using?

However, the story doesn't fit with the gun he was reportedly using on the New Mexico set on Oct. 21. Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said Baldwin was using a replica of a single-action revolver chambered in 45 Long Colt and made by Pietta. That design has three sears where the hammer rests as it is pulled back.

It is not possible to pull the hammer on a single-action revolver of that design back far enough to create enough force to strike the primer of an ammunition cartridge and set it off without the hammer catching on one of those sears when it's released. The hammer will catch on a sear after being pulled back even a short distance on a properly functioning gun. That will keep it from moving forward and striking the round underneath.

That is, unless the trigger is already depressed.

If you hold the trigger down while you manipulate the hammer on a single-action revolver, you can pull the hammer back and release it without it catching on any of the sears. The trigger drops the sears down and out of the way. If you pull the hammer back far enough while holding down the trigger, it could certainly fall with enough force to set off a round in the same way pulling the trigger with the hammer cocked would do.

Could Alec Baldwin be right?

Perhaps in Baldwin's mind, holding the trigger down while manipulating the trigger is different from actually pulling the trigger. Perhaps he did pull the trigger, which tends to be quite light on a single-action, without realizing it. Those possibilities are far more realistic than the two scenarios where the hammer could have been pulled back far enough to set off a round but not catch on a sear.

Alec Baldwin in New York Sept. 12, 2021.
Alec Baldwin in New York Sept. 12, 2021.

First, the gun could have a serious mechanical defect. Perhaps one or multiple sears are worn out or broken? It's possible and the police should be able to tell by examining the gun. But it likely would have been fairly obvious to anyone who handled the gun on set before the shooting that it was broken.

The other possibility is that the police misidentified the gun. There are black powder revolvers from the era before the 45 Long Colt model the police ID'd and some modern single-action revolvers that have sears that engage much later. Those are more susceptible to the kind of negligent discharge Baldwin describes.

Even if it turned out the gun fired without the trigger being pulled, as unlikely as that would be, it wouldn't absolve Baldwin and others on set who handled the firearm before the fatal shooting. Ultimately, it took a string of negligent acts for this tragedy to unfold.

It began when somebody brought live ammunition onto the set and loaded it into that firearm. It continued when neither the first assistant director nor the actor who handled the gun loaded with that round actually checked to ensure it was safe. It culminated when the gun was pointed at members of the crew and then fired, whether by trigger pull or manipulation of the hammer.

Multiple people on set had an opportunity to stop this from happeni. Sadly, nobody did.

Stephen Gutowski is the founder and editor of The Reload, an independent publication dedicated to gun reporting and analysis. He is also a gun owner and certified firearms instructor. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGutowski

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alec Baldwin 'Rust' gun: Possible but unlikely to fire without trigger

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