Attorney Andrew Branca of Law of Self Defense weighed in Friday on the Alec Baldwin on-set shooting incident that left one dead, cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, and another injured, director Joel Souza.
Branca, who notably offered insight into the Derek Chauvin case last year, ran through legal possibilities Baldwin might be faced with over the fatal shooting, stressing that he’s operating on hypotheticals based on news reports and court documents — not on what actually happened, as that still remains unverified.
He also discussed potential liability for Baldwin, who is reportedly a co-producer for the movie “Rust.”
The fatal shooting could be argued to be an accident, prove negligence, or be classified as recklessness or involuntary manslaughter — a worst-case scenario for the actor, Branca said in an 18-minute video.
The attorney noted that, for this case, involuntary manslaughter in New Mexico would be classified as a fourth-degree felony, which is typically punishable by up to 18 months in prison and a fine of $5,000.
Here’s Branca’s commentary concerning the argument that the shooting was an accident, per Law of Self Defense:
What might an genuine accident with a handgun look like? Well, imagine a gun that has an unseen defect, such that when the barrel is brought up to the horizontal position the gun discharges without any press of the trigger.
This is clearly not how a gun is supposed to fire, nor would any reasonable person expect a gun to fire under such circumstances.
If the gun being handled by Alec Baldwin is found to have such a defect, and his handling of the gun was otherwise non-negligent, he would have a good argument that the gun discharging and killing Ms. Hutchins was a genuine accident for which he should bear no civil or criminal liability.
Here’s what the case for negligence would look like (emphasis added):
In our hypothetical with the defective gun, for example, it may be true that the discharge of the gun was not foreseeable by Alec Baldwin, and therefore not really in his control—but the direction in which the gun was pointed certainly was in his control.
The death of Ms. Hutchins by the discharge of the gun could not have occurred had the gun not been pointed at her—and that pointing of the gun at her would certainly seem to constitute negligence.
Anyone trained in firearms safety—and anyone handling an inherently dangerous instrument like a firearm can be reasonably expected to have a duty to be trained on its safe operation around others—would know that one of the four primary safety rules of handling firearms is that you do not point the muzzle of the gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.
Pointing the gun at Ms. Hutchins then, at least under circumstances in which the gun discharges and kills her, would certainly qualify as negligence at a minimum, and thus create civil liability for her death.
Branca then took on criminal recklessness and involuntary manslaughter, again making it clear that he was operating on hypotheticals based on news reports, and does not know what actually happened.
Based on reporting that Baldwin allegedly “joked” that he should shoot Hutchins and Souza if he had to shoot the scene again, and then pulled the trigger, then it would be “no innocent accident, and we have no mere civil negligence—instead, we have, with the pointing of the weapon at the victims and the deliberate press of the trigger, criminal recklessness.”
“The gun did not go off for unforeseeable reasons, such as a hidden defect,” Branca argued. “The gun discharged because it operated as designed—to fire when the trigger is depressed. Of course, the gun must be loaded when the trigger is depressed in order to cause harm—but as the tragic consequences here amply demonstrate, the gun was loaded. It would be the duty of the person wielding the gun to ensure it was unloaded if they wished to cause no harm when they depressed the trigger—and clearly that duty was not met.”
“Second, anyone handling an inherently dangerous object such as a firearm would be presumed to possess the safety knowledge needed to handle that firearm safely around others—a claim of ignorance is no defense when one is handling inherently dangerous objects,” he continued.
“That guns are inherently dangerous is common knowledge presumed to be known to everyone,” the attorney said. “That the rounds fired come out of the muzzle and travel with lethal force and distance is also common knowledge presumed to be known to everyone. That guns discharge when their triggers are depressed is also common knowledge presumed to be known to everyone.”
“When you are aware you are creating a risk of death, deliberate[ly] disregard that risk, and death results—that’s the very definition of criminal recklessness—commonly referred to as involuntary manslaughter,” Branca asserted.
The attorney then noted of Baldwin’s reported role as actor and co-producer, noting that this could have implications for Baldwin within the civil law context and criminal law context:
Alec Baldwin was both the actor handling the firearm when it discharged—and an actor might argue that he is at the “bottom” of the safety responsibility ladder for something like a movie set—but he was also a co-producer for the film—which would place him at the “top” of the safety responsibility ladder.
In theory, an actor at the “bottom” and the producer at the “top” might each point their finger at each other in the case of a tragic event like this. That is, the actor might argue that the producer ought to have had better safety protocols in place, and the producer might argue that the actor had the [ultimate] responsibility for safe handling of the firearm.
In this case, however, Alec Baldwin occupies both seats. So he can point his finger in this manner if he wishes, but ultimately he’ll be pointing it at himself.
And this implication could well apply not merely in the civil law context, within the scope of negligence, but also within the criminal law context, within the scope of recklessness and involuntary manslaughter.
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