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After 'Rust' shooting, industry veterans say 'buck stops' with armorers on movie sets

“How could you not know what’s on your set in terms of anything that’s related to the weapons you’re supposed to be handling?” said one veteran firearms supervisor.
Image: Rust
This aerial photo shows the Bonanza Creek Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., where cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was fatally shot on the set of "Rust." Jae C. Hong / AP

Mike Tristano has supervised firearms on film sets for more than 30 years, keeping a close eye on the guns used during the filming of “The Purge,” “Harsh Times” and hundreds of other movies.

When it comes to guns and ammunition on sets, Tristano said, “the buck always stops” with the armorer, the licensed professional — sometimes credited as a “weapons master” — tasked with making sure movie firearms are safe and secure on set.

That’s why Tristano was baffled when he learned that Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, 24, the armorer on the ill-fated Alec Baldwin project “Rust,” said she had “no idea” how live ammo got on set, according to her lawyers.

“I think it’s a ridiculous statement,” Tristano said on Friday. “How could you not know what’s on your set in terms of anything that’s related to the weapons you’re supposed to be handling?”

He added, “That’s like a chef doing the catering and being like: I don’t know where this food came from.”

New Mexico law enforcement officials are still investigating what exactly led to the fatal shooting of Halyna Hutchins, the movie's cinematographer. No charges have been filed, and others working on the film — including the producers and an assistant director — have also drawn scrutiny.

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But amid that investigation, armorers and prop masters who spoke to NBC News said that, generally speaking, an armorer should have total awareness of the weapons and ammo on set.

“The armorer is responsible for all firearms and blank ammunition on set, and weapons should always be under the tight chain-of-custody of that person,” said Larry Zanoff, an armorer who worked on Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and several Marvel movies.

“If there is an actual armorer on set … they are responsible for all aspects,” Zanoff added. “They are the crew member that’s ultimately responsible.”

Gutierrez-Reed "is devastated and completely beside herself over the events that have transpired," a statement from her attorney said.

“Safety is Hannah's number one priority on set,” the statement from her attorneys said. “Ultimately, this set would never have been compromised if live ammo were not introduced. Hannah has no idea where the live rounds came from.”

The armorers and prop masters who shared their perspective in interviews cannot speculate on what went awry, and none of them have firsthand knowledge of the safety conditions on the set of “Rust.”

But to Kevin Williams, the prop shop supervisor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television, the fact remains that an armorer needs to serve as the “check and balance for ensuring that weapons are safe to fire.”

“At the end of the day,” Williams said, “it’s her responsibility to maintain control of those weapons and see what’s happening.”

Court documents related to a search warrant say assistant director David Halls yelled “cold gun,” indicating it had no live rounds, as he handed the firearm to Baldwin before the shooting.

Halls told authorities he should have checked the gun more thoroughly after noticing a difference in the ammunition rounds, according to a search warrant affidavit.

He did not immediately return a request for comment late Thursday.

Tristano, the veteran armorer known for his work on horror flicks, said that on most sets, an assistant director — or anybody else, for that matter — would almost never pass a weapon to an actor.

“No one touches the guns except the armorer, and then of course the actors and actresses. The gun is only handed to them by the armorer,” Tristano said. “I've never allowed an assistant director to hand a gun to an actor in more than 30 years in this business."

Gutierrez-Reed's attorneys, Jason Bowles and Robert Gorence, said the guns were locked up at night and during lunch and that the armorer had sought more training on the movie.

“Hannah was hired on two positions on this film, which made it extremely difficult to focus on her job as an armorer,” the statement said.

“She fought for training, days to maintain weapons and proper time to prepare for gunfire but ultimately was overruled by production and her department. The whole production set became unsafe due to various factors, including lack of safety meetings.”

But sources within the production told NBC News on Friday that it’s common practice for an armorer, like Gutierrez-Reed, to have separate responsibilities within a prop team.

In the case of Gutierrez-Reed's on “Rust,” she worked only two days in props and never had dual prop and weapons responsibilities on the same day, the production sources said.

In a podcast interview last month, Gutierrez-Reed said guns are “not really problematic unless put in the wrong hands.”

“I think the best part about my job is just showing people who are normally kind of freaked out by guns, like, how safe they can be,” she said on the Voices of the West podcast.

“A lot of it, for me, is just being able to show the world, like, you know, guns are awesome.”

In the podcast, she said her father, shooting expert and film industry consultant Thell Reed, began teaching her about guns and gun safety when she was 16. But she acknowledged she was still learning the ropes.

“I think loading blanks is like the scariest thing to me, because I was, like, ‘Oh, I don’t know anything about it,’” she said.