Guns on Sets

The recent death on set of a Director of Cinematography and the injuring of a director by a “prop” gun, prompts this post. Something needs to be said.

This account says that the gun “misfired”. That’s not accurate. If a gun misfires, it doesn’t shoot. In this case, the gun discharged. It should not have happened.

I have had at least one accidental discharge of a firearm on a movie set. I’ve also had a firearm incident that could have had very serious consequences. These have resulted in my personal rule for guns on set – unless they are absolutely necessary for technical reasons, don’t allow them. It’s very easy now to generate very realistic CGI versions of muzzle smoke and bullet impacts. Possibly more difficult are automatic actions and shell ejection, and they may justify real, functional firearms where CGI budgets are limited. But then there are ways to make them safe.

The first rule should be that anybody who handles a functional firearm, actors as well as props people, should be trained to inspect it and make sure it is not loaded. It’s the first thing they teach in a firearm safety class. Never take anybody’s word that a gun is not loaded. Inspect it. Take out the magazine. Open the action. Make sure there’s nothing in the chamber. If Alec Baldwin had done this, there’d be a cinematographer alive today.

Not having somebody on set to initiate this training and enforce safety rules is egregious negligence on the part of a production.

My younger brother spent twenty five years as a prison guard, handling a pistol grip shotgun every day. He had an accidental discharge that, thankfully, only resulted in a huge pile of paper work. Here’s how it happened: He KNEW his gun was empty. He’d removed the shells himself. But he sat down for a break, and another guard sat down beside him. When the other guard left, he picked up the wrong gun. My brother stood up, picked up the other guard’s gun, pulled the trigger expecting to hear a click and BOOM. Simple as that. So in addition to the first rule of inspecting a gun that is handed to you, the second rule is inspect the gun if it’s been out of your hands. Even briefly.

I hired my brother to be a Special Business Extra on “Terminal City Ricochet” because I knew I could trust him with guns. We still had an accidental discharge. I don’t know the details, but my brother told me he warned the props guy that he was being unsafe, only to get a surly “I know what I’m doing.” response. Two minutes later and, again, BOOM. You don’t want to hear that on a film set. So make sure there are clear lines of authority. Encourage everybody to challenge situations that are questionable.

The most frightening moment on the set of that film was my fault. My actors were driving a car that was fictionally bullet proof. They were to run a barricade in that vehicle. A guard was to step out in front of them with a shotgun and shoot at the windshield. It was my brilliant idea to have a real shotgun fire a wax bullet at the windshield. Because of the slope of the windshield and the softness of the wax, I was confident that it would just leave a nice skid mark with no further damage. I personally tested that idea, firing several wax slugs at our hero car, and it seemed to work perfectly.
On the day I had my brother act as the guard, knowing he had the skill to fire accurately. Which he did. He waited until the last possible minute, fired, and dove out of the way. But when I called “cut”, he came on the walkie-talkie saying we might want to call an ambulance. The wax bullet had gone right through. The actors weren’t hit directly, but there was a lot of shards of glass flying around.

The most disturbing part of this story, for me, is that I hadn’t made sure the actors in the front seat of the car were even wearing safety glasses. Neither had the set safety officer. A good example of how a real gun on a set can cause a tragedy. I’m just hung with horseshoes the actors weren’t hurt.

Another very scary moment on that shoot: In another scene, a prison guard was to be shot in the back by “friendly fire” from another guard. The special FX team told me that putting him in a down vest with a squib behind the down would give me a beautiful shot of feathers flying through the air. Sounded good to me. Rig it, boys.
The guard who was to be shot had to push his own button to set off the squib. When he did so, his vest bulged out but there was no beautiful explosion of feathers. He just collapsed. Oh. My. God. What happened? Did they put the squib in backwards and kill the guy?
What had happened was we were shooting in heavy rain and the down vest was soaked with water. The feathers were no longer fluffy. They were a solid mat, and the squib’s impact was just just directed right back at the performer. It was like punching him very hard right over the heart. We were lucky it didn’t kill him.*

Bottom line: I if you are on a set with guns and explosives, train your people. Think things through. Accidents will still happen, but there’s really no excuse for the recent death on set. That one was pure negligence and somebody needs to be disciplined.

*I have to hand it to that performer. He had the cojones to do take two, and push his own button again.

Zale the Gun Fondler

I got into an argument on Facebook recently with a rabid anti-gun crusader who was absolutely contemptuous of anybody with an interest in owning or playing with a gun. At the time the only argument I could offer was Sarah Silverman’s explanation for why she likes big hairy hanging balls: “Well, the heart knows what it wants.” Unsurprisingly that was greeted with a snort of disgust.
The quote I really wanted to give was from E.L Doctorow’s novel, “Johnny Bathgate” in which the protagonist describes firing a pistol for the first time. I only recently found that quote. Isn’t the Internet amazing.

“I will never forget how it felt to hold a loaded gun for the first time and lift it and fire it, the scare of its animate kick up the bone of your arm. You’re empowered, there’s no question about it. It’s an investiture, like knighthood. And even though you didn’t invent it or design it or tool it, the credit is yours because it’s in your hand. You don’t even have to know how it works. The credit is all yours. With the slightest squeeze of your finger, a hole appears in a piece of paper 60 feet away. And how can you not be impressed with yourself? How can you not love this coiled and sprung causation? I was awed. I was thrilled. The thing is, guns come alive when you fire them. They move. I hadn’t realized that.” – E.L. Doctorow “Billy Bathgate

People who aren’t into gun culture, who only see the gun in terms of mass shootings and crazies, people who didn’t grow up with guns, surrounded by Hollywood gun propaganda that soaked into the childhood psyche, will never understand.

My social bubble is just about 100% SJW liberals. Being a gun fondler is not typical of the group, and I tend to keep quiet about it. Why? Am I ashamed of this aspect of my nature? I don’t think so. I just know that most of my social bubble mates just can’t understand it, and there’s no way I can justify it. Becoming a Range Safety Officer at the Nanaimo Fish and Game club has been very interesting exercise in anthropology. It’s an environment where an interest in guns is totally normal and requires no justification. And of course I don’t quite fit in there either for the following reason:

For there record: If Canada bans all handguns and all rifles holding more than three shells in the magazine, I’m totally okay with that. It is time to put aside childish things.
Also, for the record, I never shoot at a human silhouette target. Shooting at a person is not a fantasy I indulge in.

But while guns are still legal, I do enjoy playing with them. I have since I was a kid, when my favourite toy was my double barreled pop gun that fired corks.

toy popgun that shot corks

After I outgrew the pop gun, I graduated to a .177 caliber pellet gun, and spent many happy hours trying to light matches at ten feet. I put so many pellets, that came in boxes of five hundred, through that gun that I didn’t have to look at the sights any more. They just automatically lined up and the pellet went where I expected it to go. I murdered enough birds to make me feel sick to my stomach when I think about it now.

For my eighth birthday, my father presented me with a Ranger single shot bolt action .22 rifle. Some of the happiest days of my childhood were those rare times when dad took me out to hunt grouse, which we never managed to find. The best part was just shooting at dad’s empty Sportsman cigarette packages.

Sportsman cigarette box 1950 Sportman cigarette box back. Collect the whole set.
There was a special smell to the oil and powder that can bring the memory back in living colour.

So I grew up on a diet of cowboys and gunslingers. Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Lash LaRue, Gene Autry. At the beginning of every Gunsmoke episode, wearing my holster and cap gun, I tried to outdraw Matt Dillon. There was always a gun in the closet. Being interested in guns, and playing with guns, was just totally normal. Like smoking cigarettes seemed to be for all the adults.

Once I gained the rights and privileges of adulthood, I could indulge my interest any way I wanted. I bought a Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 magnum single action revolver and joined a fast draw club. I bought a four inch barrel to replace the six inch barrel the gun came with, and I had a gunsmith modify the hammer for fanning and chrome plate the cylinder so it could handle being fanned. On a trip to L.A. I also bought an Alfonso fast draw holster. Friday evenings I would join a diverse group of accountants and B.C. Tel executives, all wearing cowboy outfits, and we would try to break balloons at ten feet distance using blank cartridges, timed with an electronic timer. I got into loading black powder blanks and wax bullets. I won a turkey at the club turkey shoot. Gradually I came to see the gun for what it is, stripped of romance and tradition, a machine for propelling a lump of metal through the air at high speed. All the romance of a drill press.

So I got bored with cowboy fantasies and fast draw and came to see the whole western costume thing as rather silly and a huge historical lie created and perpetuated by Hollywood. I decided I wanted a modern gun, sold all my fast draw gear, and bought a Smith and Wesson Model 3906 9mm stainless steel semi-automatic. S&W 3906 stainless 9mm. semi automatic
I enjoyed that gun, but a legal issue arose that I will discuss another time and lawyers suggested I surrender my FAC (Firearm Acquisition Certificate now called the PAL, Possession and Acquisition License) and get rid of all guns. So I had a couple of decades with no guns and no ability to buy one. Can’t say I missed them.

Then, some time after returning from China, I discovered that my former sister in law and her husband had bought a .22 pistol and were into shooting, so I took the mandatory training to get my RPAL, bought a Smith and Wesson Victory .22LR like the one they were using, and jumped back into it.

I took the training and volunteered to become a Range Safety Officer because I wanted the hat.

I now serve once a week at the Nanaimo Fish and Game Club and I enjoy the camaraderie of others who share my irrational interest. And believe me I am no where near as deep into that obsession as the true gun fondlers. But I seem to be sinking deeper.

My new Tokarev 7.62X.25 caliber pistol was for decades the official sidearm of the Eastern block police and military. It fires a crazy hot load, a necked down rimless cartridge with an 85 grain full metal jacket bullet that leaves the muzzle at 1406 feet/second. It kicks hard and is fun to shoot.

Tokareve ammo 7.62x.25

Each of these bullets cost fifty-five cents. That takes a lot of the joy out of making a loud noise and punching distant holes in a piece of paper. My father had a few words for people who engage is such activities: “More money than brains.” I can’t argue with that.

Can I justify any interest in any of this? Absolutely not. And, as I said earlier, if Canada decides to ban all hand guns and restrict gun owners to shotguns and rifles holding only three shells, I’m all for it.

Who needs these things, eh. Not me.

If this post triggered any thoughts, please leave a comment. It doesn’t have to be much. Just let me know I’m not shouting into the void. Thanks.