Alec Baldwin’s Twitter account disappeared Dec. 6, three days after a tell-all interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos about the shooting on his Rust film set. Was it so bad? Widespread reaction to his protestations that he never pulled the trigger was swift and seemed unanimous on social media – Baldwin was mocked and vilified. If he’s right, he may avoid criminal and personal civil liability. And he may still avoid liability if he did engage the trigger, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.
How could Baldwin have fired the gun if he didn’t touch the trigger? It turns out the type of firearm he handled is particularly susceptible to such an event. Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said the actor fired the fatal shot with an F.lli Pietta brand gun, caliber .45 Long Colt. The Pietta may sound exotic; it is anything but. Pietta makes a replica of one of the most famous firearms around, the Colt Peacemaker, or Single Action Army, production from 1873 until 1941 for its first run. John Wayne’s favorite, it is the classic Hollywood Western sidearm, depicting the time before double-action guns entered production.
Cowboy Action Shooting
Unlike modern revolvers, which can be fired in double action or single action, old-time wheel guns could fire only after the operator manually clicked back the hammer and pulled the trigger. This is why it’s not quite as reckless to spin one around the finger, as is so often depicted in movies and TV shows (though you should never do this with any firearm). The old cowboy guns also were prone to firing when dropped, not requiring pressure on the trigger. Anyone familiar with the Peacemaker knows you shouldn’t carry the gun fully loaded. These guns are carried safely with the hammer and its attached firing pin resting only on an empty chamber. Design necessitates that precaution, which allows the firing pin to strike the cartridge and fire the bullet without touching the trigger.
Modern double-action revolvers and single-action models designed after the Peacemaker have safety systems to prevent this. Transfer bar and hammer block safeties were designed and implemented to make single-action pistols safer.
Sometimes replicas are true clones that offer interchangeable parts, and sometimes manufacturers keep appearances but change internals, especially including re-designs for safety. Liberty Nation spoke with Robert Theige at Ron Peterson Firearms, a gun shop specializing in antiques, about the Pietta replica. Theige had one in stock and confirmed its production is true to the original Colt, without a hammer block safety.
The Peacemaker is not likely to go off without intentional action; it’s simply much more likely to do so than any modern revolver. There is a four-position hammer catch on the pistol. Modern revolvers have one when the hammer is cocked back. In the Peacemaker and common with single-action guns, there are several positions along the hammer’s draw, where a catch will hold the hammer without it being fully cocked.
Going Off Half-Cocked
The saying “going off half-cocked” describes exactly what Baldwin claims occurred on the set. He said he pulled the hammer back and let it go without ever touching the trigger. A forensic evaluation of the pistol he shot will reveal if the mechanical operation of the gun was compromised and allowed it. Rust assistant director Dave Halls supports Baldwin’s claim that he didn’t pull the trigger. His attorney told Good Morning America, “Dave has told me since the first day I met him that Alec did not pull that trigger.” Baldwin’s hand and finger position at the time of the shot may be captured on film or video, too.
For the sake of argument, presume Baldwin is telling the truth when he says he didn’t pull the trigger. Aside from well-trained shooters, people tend to put their pointer finger on or just removed from a gun’s trigger. A firearms trainer told me gun handling with a finger on the trigger was “instinctual” to those who are not trained on the issue. And the practice was reinforced by “a lifetime of watching similar gun handling in movies and on TV.” This is especially true with handguns and happens so often trainers just automatically keep a watchful eye on a student’s trigger finger. Proper placement of a finger when not actively firing a handgun is outside the trigger guard, alongside the frame.
Going off half-cocked is less likely than an inadvertent trigger pull, but it’s far from preposterous. Even if he did cock the gun and touch the trigger, firing it and killing Hutchins, Baldwin may still avoid liability. He was detailing just such a claim during the Stephanopoulos interview. Baldwin explained that while he was a producer on the movie, his role did not include hiring anyone, including the set armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed. He also claimed he is not liable because he relied on her expertise.
George Stephanopoulos: “Was she up for the job?”
Alec Baldwin: “She was up to the job because she was there, and she was hired.”
Is Baldwin guilty of some crime if he didn’t check the pistol but relied on someone else to certify its safety? Famed Harvard law professor and criminal defense attorney Alan Dershowitz says no:
“But some may think that it was not simply enough for him to accept the word of an assistant director about the gun’s safety, that he perhaps should have independently inspected the gun before firing it. It is unlikely, however, that such an omission would result in criminal responsibility.”
After the interview aired, Santa Fe, New Mexico District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said, “As the First Judicial District Attorney, I have not made a decision to charge or not charge any individuals involved in the shooting that resulted in the death of Halyna Hutchins and injury of Joel Souza.” Maybe that’s what prompted the Baldwins to go dark on Twitter, to remove the temptation of Baldwin making a statement that could incriminate himself.
~ Read more from Scott D. Cosenza.