Senator David Cortese (D-San Jose) has backed off from a proposed total ban on real firearms in movie sets this week, opting instead to focus on banning live ammunition in most film productions and instilling movie armorer credentialing requirements.
In October, cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was fatally shot by actor Alec Baldwin during a rehearsal at a movie shoot in New Mexico. While the incident is under investigation, the event sparked calls for increased movie production safety and for better standards for movie armorers and prop specialists who handle firearms on movie sets.
Within a few days of the shooting, Senator Cortese specifically called for a ban on all real guns and live ammunition from movie sets, vowing to author a bill in time for the next session in January.
“There is an urgent need to address alarming work abuses and safety violations occurring on the set of theatrical productions, including unnecessary high-risk conditions such as the use of live firearms,” said Senator Cortese in a statement in October.
“It is important that California establish new safety standards and best practices for all those who work in the industry and particularly in our own state. Those working behind the scenes to entertain and bring joy to millions all over the world shouldn’t go to set worrying if they will return home safely to their family. Our entertainment industry must do a better job of ensuring safe working conditions for our hardworking crews. I intend to introduce legislation that would ban live ammunition on sets in California to prevent this type of senseless violence and loss of life.”
However, movie industry officials quickly pushed back against the proposal, citing the need for real weapons and ammunition such as blanks on sets. Movie armorers and prop masters also expressed concern, saying that the bill would punish the vast majority of armorers who follow strict safety measures while on sets.
“We all thought the guy thought we were all irresponsible lunatics,” said Allen Miller, an assistant armorer who has been a part of movie productions for the last two decades. “Banning all guns and ammunition was just a quick reaction to the tragedy and had no nuance. Well, we let him know just how safe we really are on sets. A lot of us are former military or come from experience with weapons like hunting. We know just how vital safety is, even with actors experienced with weapons.”
“We also let him know that you can’t pull live rounds or real weapons for everything. They are critical for some shows and movies. And I’m happy to say that we changed his mind.”
Bill focus changed after industry backlash
With industry pressure mounting in recent weeks, Cortese relented on the issue before introducing his bill.
“My preference would have been if we could not use blanks at all in any kind of production,” said Senator Cortese. “But in recent weeks [I’ve gotten] a clear message from film armorers: ‘We have to have blanks.'”
“They convinced me, That was pretty much a universal concern.”
Senator Cortese authored Senate Bill 831. While the bill does prohibit weapons from firing blank ammunition in movie productions, it will be allowed if the armorer or prop master in charge has completed a firearms safety course and has a certificate for handling firearms. International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) members are already required to take this course, with the bill aiming to not allow unqualified armorers, such as the one on the set of Rust that contributed to the death of Hutchins, from being allowed to handle weapons for movie shoots.
SB 831 would also ban live ammunition from many sets, but will allow it for certain productions, such as reality shows that require live ammunition being used, as long as the safety and firearm training rules are followed. Security guards and law enforcement officials would also be exempt from this rule.
If passed, the bill would become law by January 2024.
Most industry professionals approved of the new bill this week after previously balking at Senator Cortese’s original proposal.
“Union leadership is pretty comfortable with where we’re at,” added Cortese. “They want to see this codified into law. The non-union guys have to be held to the same standards as the union guys.”
Many armorers also agreed with the new bill.
“It’s not perfect, but it is needed,” added Miller. “We can’t have inexperienced and unqualified people handling these things. Unfortunately, a tragedy like Rust happened, and all we can do is create new rules and standards to prevent it from happening again. The same thing happened after Brendan Lee was killed on set. Never again.”
Some armorers have come out in opposition to SB 831, citing that a firearms course and certification still leaves a lot to chance.
“A thirty year industry expert and some guy just breaking into the scene can qualify for the same thing,” noted an anonymous armorer to the Globe on Wednesday. “There needs to be more to it. The focus should be on qualifications and safety, not about the type of ammunition. Safety checks over not allowing blanks should have been the goal.”
SB 831 is expected to be heard in Senate committees in the coming months.
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