November 6


Alec Baldwin and Mens Rea

Law in the News

Let us look at some of the details of the Alec Baldwin shooting and consider the legal implications, including criminal liability and civil liability, the mens rea for criminal liability, and the apparent lack of proper firearm safety. 

According to news reports: Last week, Alec Baldwin shot two people, killing one. While recording a new movie, Rust, in New Mexico, Baldwin fired a prop gun, which contained live ammunition. The projectile hit the cinematographer and continued on and hit an assistant director. The cinematographer died later in the hospital. 

This tragic event could have been avoided, if basic firearm safety protocols were followed.

Disclaimer: This post is in response to news reports soon after the incident took place, of course this is a developing story and new reports may change our understanding of the facts. In fact, usually what really happened is not the same as what the initial news reports describe. The purpose of this post is to raise some issues and discuss some possible legal implications. This is, of course, not legal advice and anyone implicated is innocent until proven guilty.

Alec Baldwin & Mens Rea

Alec Baldwin, 62, is a Hollywood actor known for such movies as: The Departed (2006), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), and Hunt for Red October (1990).  He has also appeared on many television shows, including Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock.

Firearm Safety Ignored

Two of the basic rules of firearms safety are: treat every weapon as if it is loaded; and do not point at anything you do not intend to shoot. 

Reports are that an assistant director picked up the revolver, without checking it, and announced it was a 'cold gun' before he handed it to Baldwin, who also did not check it. (By yelling out 'cold gun', they are informing everyone on the set that this firearm is not loaded and that is safe. Obviously, they should have checked the firearm first, to verify that it was unloaded.) Here is a timeline of events.

On movie sets, it is normally not allowed to have any live ammunition, for obvious reasons. Apparently, the crew was using this revolver for target shooting earlier. Additionally, there were prior complaints about the working conditions, including safety.

This disregard of normal firearm safety protocols may lead to both criminal and civil liability.

Criminal Liability

Traditionally, to be convicted of a crime in common law, the prosecution needs to prove both actus reas and mens rea. These are Latin terms that are very familiar to lawyers. Let us briefly discuss them both.

Actus Reas

Actus reas refers to the criminal act. When teaching this, I often give the example of the person who points a pistol at someone else, pulls the trigger, shoots the victim, and the victim dies. That would be an example of the actus reas of murder: the perpetrator's actions directly caused the death of the victim.

However, to prove murder, the actus reas is not enough. There must also be the mens rea.

Mens Rea

Most people probably do not know what mens rea means. It is one of those terms that lawyers understand, but many non-lawyers do not. Look at the confusion caused in this scene from the 1989 movie See No Evil, Hear No Evil

Click to play

Mens rea refers to the criminal intent or the guilty mind. Even if the perpetrator committed the actus reas - did they have the criminal intent?

The example I would often give for this was: what if an actor was given a pistol, told it was a prop gun and not capable of firing, so used it during a play and pulled the trigger? Would he have the mens rea for murder?

Given these facts, no. The actor had no criminal intent when they were acting the scene; the actor did not intend to kill or harm anyone. However, that does not mean there would be no liability - even though there was no mens rea required for murder, there could be liability for manslaughter or other lessor offenses. 

Other Criminal Liability

The mens rea required for manslaughter is less than that required for murder. 

According to Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute:

Manslaughter is the act of killing another human being in a way that is less culpable than murderSee Homicide.
Under both the common law and the Pennsylvania Method of differentiating degrees of murder, manslaughter was divided into voluntary and involuntary manslaughter:
  • Voluntary manslaughter is intentionally killing another person in the heat of passion and in response to adequate provocation.
  • Involuntary manslaughter is negligently causing the death of another person.

By firing a firearm at someone, as in our example above, this could be involuntary manslaughter. The person did not intend to shoot or harm anyone, but they were negligent or criminally reckless and caused this harm. (Both negligence and reckless are levels of mens rea - but that will be for another post!)

Certainly it is a strong argument that anyone who picks up a firearm without checking if it is loaded or not, was negligent or reckless. 

What do you think: Would this apply to someone who told the person the firearm was not loaded?

Civil Liability

When someone causes the death of another person, they could not only be held criminally liable, but also civilly liable. 

This is what happened in the O.J. Simpson case. The famous American Footballer was accused of killing his ex-wife. At the criminal trial he was found not guilty. However, at the civil trial for wrongful death he was found liable. (If you would like to read more about those cases in a future post, comment below!)

Alec Baldwin and Mens Rea, and possible Liability for others

Going back to Alec Baldwin's situation, he could be sued civilly for wrongful death. In fact, that may be starting soon, look here.

Beyond his own personal actions, Alec Baldwin is one of the producers of this movie. Hence, he may have responsibility for what happens on the movie set. 

The assistant director may have liability - both criminal and civil - for his actions as well. 

The armorer for the set is responsible for the firearms and for the safety of the set. It is unclear where she was at the time; usually it is the armorer who would give the firearm directly to the actor. Whether she was there or not, she may have liability as well. 

The Rust film company, or companies involved in the filming, may also have civil liability. If the reports of prior problems and complaints are true (especially the lack of firearm safety) then this could also be a factor - since they were 'on notice' of possible problems before this tragic incident took place. 

What are your thoughts? 
Who would have criminal or civil liability in your legal system?
Comment below!

To learn more about liability, mens rea, and other Legal English terms, consider taking one of our online courses. A great way to start is with Elemental Legal English.


Criminal Law

You may also like

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Subscribe to our newsletter now!

Success message!
Warning message!
Error message!