Saturday, March 16, 2024

Hollywood has a gun problem

In my first job as a military adviser on a film set, I witnessed the stark contrast between the gun safety culture of my Navy SEAL days and the cavalier attitude toward firearms that permeates Hollywood, writes Kaj Larsen in The New York Times. During a break in filming, the lead actor, fresh off a stint as a teen heartthrob, picked up a gun and began waving it around, joking with the cast. Instinctively, I leaped toward the actor, grabbed the gun and gave him a hard thump to the chest, admonishing him for “flagging” the entire crew — using the military term for aiming a firearm at someone.

Later, I pulled him aside and drilled into him the cardinal rules of gun safety, rules that become second nature to anyone who handles firearms professionally: Always treat a gun as loaded. Never point it at anything you don’t intend to shoot. Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to fire. These aren’t optional guidelines but ironclad laws. If you’re going to handle firearms, even those loaded with blanks, I explained, you have a duty to master these principles.

The disregard for basic gun safety I witnessed that day wasn’t an isolated incident. It was emblematic of a problem in the film industry and a symptom of the profound contradictions in Hollywood’s attitudes toward firearms.

On movie sets, real guns, often modified to fire blanks, are commonplace. Gunfights and shootouts are staples of blockbuster entertainment, and the characters wielding those weapons, from James Bond to John Wick, are glamorized and idolized. Violence — often stylized gun violence — has long been a lucrative part of the Hollywood ecosystem. At the same time, Hollywood is perceived as a bastion of liberal politics and a leading voice in the push for gun control. After mass shootings, many actors and executives make impassioned pleas for stricter regulations on firearms. They use their influential platform to turn public opinion against American gun culture.

It’s a jarring contradiction, one that the industry has long ignored — but one that I believe it can no longer avoid confronting. The tragic shooting on the set of “Rust” in 2021, which claimed the life of a cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, has cast a harsh spotlight on the consequences of a cavalier attitude toward guns. The details of the episode paint a picture of an environment where basic gun safety protocols were neglected. Live rounds were mixed with blanks. Firearms were handled with shocking nonchalance. The result was a cascading series of errors that culminated in a preventable death.

The conviction last week of the film’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, for involuntary manslaughter, and an assistant director’s plea of no contest to a charge of negligent handling of a deadly weapon, underscore the systemic nature of the problem. It’s not just about individual lapses in judgment but about a broader culture of laxity and disregard for the lethal potential of firearms on set.

The “Rust” tragedy should be a wake-up call for Hollywood. It demands a top-to-bottom re-evaluation of how guns are handled in the entertainment industry. The industry needs stronger safety protocols and more rigorous training, in conjunction with experienced and qualified armorers. It needs actors to educate themselves and respect the deadly power of guns, even those firing blanks. It needs producers and directors to prioritize safety over expediency. And it needs a system where anyone can speak up about unsafe practices without fear of reprisal.

Since Ms. Hutchins’s death, some in the industry have begun to take action. Guy Ritchie, a veteran action movie director known for films that prominently feature firearms, announced he would no longer use real guns on his sets, instead opting for airsoft pellet weapons. The actor Dwayne Johnson, whose production company is behind action films like “Red Notice,” committed to avoiding real firearms on his sets, even if it meant increased visual effects costs. Over 200 cinematographers also signed an open letter calling for a ban on functional firearms in filmmaking and refusing to work on sets that use them.

These are encouraging steps. But these actions need to be part of a fundamental cultural shift — one that brings to film sets the seriousness and respect for firearms that are drilled into military and law enforcement professionals.

The very language Hollywood uses, particularly the term “prop gun,” is emblematic of the problem. The phrase “prop gun” suggests something inauthentic, a harmless facsimile of a real weapon. This is a dangerous misnomer. The guns used in films are typically real firearms, often modified to fire blank rounds or to be nonfunctional. By referring to them as mere props, the industry perpetuates a false sense of safety, downplaying the genuine risks these weapons pose.

The military’s approach to gun safety is a stark counterpoint to Hollywood’s complacency. In the military, every round, whether blank or live, is treated as potentially lethal. Any exercise involving firearms involves multiple, meticulous safety checks. The final responsibility rests with the individual pulling the trigger, who must confirm the weapon’s safety before firing. It’s a culture of uncompromising discipline and accountability, where the consequences of complacency are well understood.

The most important lesson Hollywood can learn from the military is an ethic of shared responsibility — that everyone, regardless of rank, has a duty to ensure safety. In the Navy, if a young sailor crashes a ship while the captain sleeps, both are held responsible. In 2023 alone, the Navy relieved 16 commanding officers, some almost certainly because of the actions of their subordinates. That accountability is what’s sorely lacking in Hollywood.

The path forward is clear, if not easy. Hollywood must adopt a new ethic, one that treats guns with the seriousness they deserve. It must foster a culture where safety is paramount, where no one is too important or too busy to follow basic protocols. It must train its talent, its crews and its leadership to view gun safety not as an optional extra but as a core competency and a moral imperative.

The film industry has a unique power to shape culture, to lead society in grappling with complex issues. But it can’t authentically take on the debate around America’s relationship with guns until it resolves its own internal contradictions. It can’t advocate responsible gun laws while simultaneously glamorizing reckless gun use. And it can’t demand accountability from others while avoiding it on its own film sets.

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