Alec Baldwin now faces a criminal charge of involuntary manslaughter for the accidental shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on a New Mexico movie set in October 2021. The charge alleges a criminal degree of negligence.
Legally, negligence is a disregard for foreseeable safer actions, the consequences for which can be serious, including death. In the law, negligence can be adjudicated through civil or criminal means. In a civil suit for damages (known as a tort claim), even when the injuries or consequences are serious, the punishment is a financial payment in restitution rather than a criminal conviction and a prison sentence.
What makes this Baldwin case criminal (a threat to his liberty) rather than civil (a threat to his money)?
When negligence is particularly egregious—either so preventable or evidencing such disregard for the safety of the people affected—it becomes a criminal wrong. When the egregious consequence is a death, that criminal wrong is involuntary manslaughter: homicide without an intention to kill.
Despite its appearance as an accident, prosecutors may have good reasons to believe Baldwin’s actions pass that bar for egregiousness, and the reasons are specific to the way Hutchins died: a gunshot.
The prosecutors have decided that a gun requires a “duty of care”—the historic legal standard violated in negligence cases—that’s extremely high. They claim that, as the gun’s handler, Baldwin acted in egregious disregard of its potential dangers. In the law, this is referred to as “the neighbor principle”: We owe a duty to our neighbors, and in this case, Baldwin shot his neighbor, Halyna Hutchins. In the prosecutors’ view, it is his egregious gun-handling that caused this needless death, and that is at the center of the criminal charges. There is always an obligation on anyone who holds a gun and points it at someone else to check beforehand that the gun is unloaded.
It is in the common understanding that guns are dangerous and are in fact designed to cause death. America continues to grapple with gun violence, logging over 30 mass shootings in January 2023 alone. The charge in this case would almost certainly not be criminal if Hutchins had died by any other means.
Imagine a movie set where during a scene, an actor is to pull the cord to make a ceiling light go on or off. The light is hanging from the ceiling. After pulling the cord, the light fixture falls, striking and killing a member of the production crew. Subsequent investigation reveals that the light was hung incorrectly by a crew member, and this was the proximate cause of the accident. The actor who pulled the cord reported he had no idea the light would fall as he knows nothing of light-hanging and never considered he should be checking for such things in the circumstance of his job. This death is a consequence of negligence because a “duty of care” was owed: It is expected that certain movie lights will not fall.
But unlike a gun, a ceiling light is not a deadly weapon. It is not an instrument designed to kill. A falling movie light as a cause of death is an extremely uncommon event and a reasonable person in the position of the actor might not be expected to anticipate this problem if they were not charged with hanging the light to begin with. In this hypothetical instance, it would be practically impossible to ascribe criminal fault—only civil negligence at most.
An actor like Baldwin should not be expected to get on a ladder and check that the overhead lights are secured, but prosecutors will likely argue that anyone who handles a gun should be expected to be certain that gun is safe. Failure to do so in this case raises the level of negligence to something quite beyond a falling light.
What about the fact that it was a gun on a movie set and that the danger of prop guns on movie sets can be reasonably expected to be lower than real guns in the real world? Shouldn’t this fact affect Baldwin’s level of negligence? The term “prop gun” generally refers to a nonfunctional weapon used in theater or film. It also refers to real guns loaded with special cartridges that are modified bullets, so-called “blanks.”
Baldwin used a real gun—a .45 Colt (.45 Long Colt) caliber F.lli Pietta single-action revolver—that was supposed to be loaded with blanks and not real bullets. A single-action gun works by pulling back the hammer until it clicks in place and then squeezing the trigger to release the hammer. The strike of the hammer on the chambered shell needs a specific amount of force to detonate the primer. Baldwin claims he never pulled the trigger, but FBI analysis after the fact disagreed. Testing of this specific gun showed it could not have fired without the trigger being pulled. It has even been suggested that a computer-generated gun image would have sufficed for the scene. Guns of any kind, prop or otherwise, are simply not needed on a modern movie set.
Defense attorneys will likely argue that the fault lies not with Baldwin, but with either the gun’s manufacturer—if it somehow did fire without pulling the trigger—or with others on the set responsible for its safety. In negligence cases, the “duty of care” to your neighbor concerns the risks of the consequence of conduct—risks that a person either knows or should reasonably know. Prosecutors in this case may allege that every handler of this object, including Baldwin, had a unique responsibility because of the nature of the object. Again, they will argue: A gun is not a light fixture. Even if the gun was faulty, it is such an obviously dangerous object that its wielder is clearly obligated to his neighbors to handle it with an extreme level of care that Baldwin egregiously disregarded.
Dying on a movie set is a catastrophic break in the fourth wall; the shock of this death demands action. But will raising the legal heat on Baldwin from a civil wrong to a criminal wrong make any outcome in the case more just?
A criminal charge seeks incarceration for Baldwin as a possible outcome. That might be desirable if prosecutors wish to teach a lesson about the circumstance, or to remove a dangerous person from the public. Alec Baldwin is a complex public figure with a well-documented history of aggression, and movie sets can be unsafe places. But there is no evidence that Baldwin fired the gun out of aggression. It seems unlikely to me that the public has much to fear that Baldwin will shoot other cinematographers, or anyone else on a future movie set.
Baldwin made public comments on this case where he asserted that he never pulled the trigger and was in no way responsible for the death of Hutchins. He claims the fault must lie with others. In his desire to gain public sympathy and support, Baldwin runs the risk of actually turning public opinion against him and antagonizing prosecutors. Prosecutor anger or popular public opinion should have no place in a court of law. Baldwin has gone on to sue the film’s crew for negligence to “clear his name.”
The shooting death of Halyna Hutchins was not murder, but it may have been criminal negligence. The handling of a gun creates a duty on everyone who touches it, and a death on a movie set should be considered a “never event.” Modern negligence, legally, is about violating a duty of care owed to our neighbors. Baldwin says he lacked specific intent to harm a particular person, and we have no cause to disbelieve him. But there’s a reason why this wrongful death has been deemed criminal negligence, and why Baldwin is being prosecuted. The reason is the gun.