Alec Baldwin on Trial: Is the Actor to Blame for a Fatal Shooting on Set?

Alec Baldwin Rust trial
Courtesy of Court TV

Alec Baldwin’s temper is the stuff of Hollywood legend. His volatile behavior on the set of “The Edge” — he refused to shave his beard — left such an impression on producer Art Linson that he made a movie about it, “What Just Happened,” with Bruce Willis caricaturing Baldwin as a tantrum-throwing star.

But he is also an adept and dependable actor. Dean Goodine was the prop master on “The Edge,” a thriller filmed in the Canadian Rockies. Before one key scene, he showed Baldwin how to load dummies into a Winchester Model 1886.

“I have no stories other than of him being professional,” Goodine says. “He paid attention to all the training. He did the scene flawlessly.”

Baldwin is on trial this week in Santa Fe, N.M., on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. While working on the Western film “Rust” in 2021, prosecutors allege Baldwin recklessly pointed a Colt .45 at cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and pulled the trigger, causing her death.

The case may come down to which version of Baldwin the jury finds more credible: the hotheaded egomaniac who thinks the rules don’t apply to him or the consummate professional who was failed by those around him.

Baldwin did not know that the armorer loaded a live round in his gun. Still, prosecutors argue that if Baldwin had checked the weapon or obeyed simple rules of safe gun handling, Hutchins would be alive. They will also present video and witnesses to show that Baldwin was out of control on set — going off-script, rushing the crew, and screaming and cursing at himself.

To convict, the jury must find Baldwin acted with “willful disregard” for safety — that is, that he knew what he was doing was dangerous, and did it anyway.

Though the case is unique, it is not uncommon for a person involved in a gun accident to say they thought the gun wasn’t loaded or that it just “went off.” Nor is it unusual for that person to be prosecuted.

“My view is that the responsibility for gun safety always rests in the hands of the shooter,” says Gary Klein, a gun safety advocate who tracks unintentional shootings. “You can’t delegate that responsibility to someone else, even if you consider that person to be more of an expert.”

Baldwin has maintained that he did not pull the trigger, and that he pointed the gun at Hutchins only because she instructed him to, while preparing a shot.

In an interview with a workplace safety investigator, Baldwin said he had absorbed safety practices from his father, a Marine Corps drill instructor, and from years of working with guns on set. He did not remember ever seeing Safety Bulletin #1, the industry’s firearms safety protocol. But he knew well enough not to point a gun at someone and fire, even on a movie set.

“I’ve never done that in my life,” he said. “Never.”

Some gun safety guides list six “golden rules.” Others have 12. In the 1940s, the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute published pamphlets promoting “The Ten Commandments of Safety.”

In the 1970s, Col. Jeff Cooper boiled it down to three: All guns are always loaded; never let your muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy; and be sure of your target. Later, he added a fourth: Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target. 

Cooper ran a gun academy in Arizona until his death in 2006. He was an evangelist for “trigger discipline” and claimed that trigger rule violations account for 80% of accidents. In a demonstration posted on YouTube, he pokes fun at Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone for carrying guns with their finger on the trigger. “You don’t do that,” he says.

Cooper’s four rules are seen at gun ranges and in the military, and have also been adapted into Safety Bulletin #1. (The muzzle rule was changed to allow an actor to point a gun at someone on camera, under appropriate supervision.) According to prosecutor Erlinda Johnson, Bulletin #1 illustrates that “firearm handling on a movie set is not much different from firearm handling in real life.”

At trial, the state plans to use the bulletin to show that Baldwin knew he was breaking the rules. In other words: willful disregard.

In an office in Burbank last month, Dutch Merrick, a veteran film armorer, spent a full day training a handful of film workers to use guns safely on set.

For the final module, he asked the crew to set up a close-up shot, with a blue plastic gun pointed toward the camera. He invited the students to adjust the gun and the camera to get the shot just right. It was not easy. As each one took a turn, they clustered behind the camera.

After a while, Merrick asked if there was anything unsafe about this.

“I’m pointing a gun straight at a bunch of crew?” the actor said.

All of them had focused on getting the shot, and had neglected safety. “That is the point of the exercise,” Merrick said. “That’s what happened on ‘Rust.’”

Thanks to “Rust,” firearm training will be required for all armorers in California starting next year. Merrick is already traveling the country to give his Prop Gun Set Safety workshop, often in partnership with local crew unions.

At the end of the session, he summarized the “Rust” shooting and asked the class who was most at fault.

“Producers,” a student said.

Merrick wrote that on a whiteboard. “Who else?”

“First assistant director,” another student said.

Merrick wrote it down. “Who else?”


Only after those three did someone name Baldwin.

Many crew members agree that even if Baldwin violated the gun protocols, others shoulder more blame.

“He has a vague responsibility. But the real responsibility comes from the armorer and the first assistant director,” says Buddy Joe Hooker, a veteran Hollywood stuntman. “He’s an actor. That isn’t their deal. Their mind is generally 100 miles away from checking the gun.”

Goodine, who has worked on Westerns with Kevin Costner, Brad Pitt, and Clint Eastwood, says gunfights can get actors’ adrenaline going. He says it’s important for the first A.D. and other crew to counter that with calm professionalism.

Tommy Tomlinson handled guns on “Die Hard” and the “Predator” movies, and also worked with Baldwin on “The Hunt for Red October.” He recalls that the set was a “controlled environment”— and that he had no issues with Baldwin.

“He was wonderful on set,” he says. “We did a lot of gun handling with him. He was fine with gun safety.”

The safety bulletins are lengthy, and Merrick says most people don’t read them. Instead, crew members typically rely on their experience and on those around them to create a safe atmosphere.

“All the rules you’re being told by gun clubs – those are great rules. But in film, it’s different,” Goodine says. “If the script calls for an action, our job is to do the action. It really is a whole different universe.”

At one point in “The Edge,” Baldwin aims the Winchester directly at Anthony Hopkins. Before the cameras rolled, Goodine made sure the dummy rounds had been removed and the rifle was clear.

Asked if he thinks the actor should be convicted for safety lapses on “Rust,” Goodine is unequivocal.

“Absolutely not,” he says. “That’s my job.”

From Variety US