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‘Rust’ Accidental Shooting Sparks Calls for Better Workplace Safety

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

SANTA FE, NM — While investigations into the accidental shooting on the set of Rust are ongoing, the incident is sparking new calls for better workplace safety during film production. While on-set deaths are rare, cast and crew and still often exposed to dangerous situations.

California state Senator Dave Cortese issued a statement saying that he would introduce legislation banning live ammunition, and firearms that are capable of firing live ammunition, from movie sets and theatrical productions in the state. He went on to say 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 … 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.”

In the United States, rules on the use of firearms in film production have mostly been set by the industry itself while states regulate who can own a firearm and how licenses are handed out. California, which has some of the strictest gun ownership laws in the country, created a special “entertainment firearms permit” that exempts armorers and other professionals handling guns as props from certain restrictions, such as a ban on buying more than one handgun within 30 days.

Many productions use blanks (which contain gunpowder but no bullet) in order to effectively mirror the effects of shooting a firearm, such as capturing an accurate depiction of recoil. Blanks are also often loaded with wads of paper, plastic, felt or cotton in order to achieve a certain level of flame out of the gun. Because of this, even though there is no bullet involved, they can still be dangerous.

Many in the industry say that with the technological advances in postproduction, there is no longer any reason for guns to be loaded with blanks or anything else on set. Yet many filmmakers who still insist on using live prop guns say that the safety rules that are in place are largely effective in preventing accidents when followed.

Working conditions were a major point of discussion during contract renewal negotiations between the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). An agreement was reached on October 16th (mere days before the IATSE was set to go on strike) which included improvements to health and safety standards.

According to a 2016 investigation by the Associated Press, fines imposed on film studios by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after serious workplace accidents are often “fiercely contested” and that nearly half the ones they reviewed were eventually reduced. In addition, prosecutions were rarely pursued, as “most workers are legally barred from suing, and those that do encounter the reluctance of witnesses to come forward for fear of being rendered unemployable in the ultracompetitive entertainment industry.”

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