We can all agree that Alec Baldwin did not mean to kill cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, leaving her husband a widower and her then-9-year-old son motherless. He should not be, and was not, charged with murder. But, nor should this killing be brushed off as an accident, a tragedy of working with superstars in which a family’s only hope is to squeeze some money out in civil proceedings.
Baldwin should be charged, as he was, with involuntary manslaughter, which involves the “commission of a lawful act which might produce death … without due caution.”
To see why, it’s worth considering the three purposes of criminal punishment. One is retribution, the idea that society demands justice. If a mother watches her baby get murdered and the perpetrator roams free of consequence, she might take matters into her own hands. To prevent devolving into anarchy, we punish criminals to vindicate the victims. Perhaps society does not demand Alec Baldwin be jailed, so we move on to the next purpose.
The second is incapacitation, the need to keep dangerous people off the streets. Most people feel perfectly fine around Baldwin, so jail will not serve this purpose.
But the third is deterrence, not so much to prevent Baldwin from shooting additional movie staffers but to change the behavior of others. And here, Baldwin’s prosecution fits.
Handling weapons, like transporting vinyl chloride or bungee jumping, requires a certain level of care. As any graduate of a concealed carry course can tell you concerning guns, the requisite level of care involves four elements. First, always keep the firearm pointed in a safe direction, even when dry firing. Second, treat all guns as though they are loaded. Third, keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. And four, always be sure of your target and what’s beyond it. Baldwin failed them all.
Remember, involuntary manslaughter involves an act that causes death “without due caution.” By failing every gun safety rule, Baldwin acted without due caution. This is an easy case.
Baldwin’s only conceivable defense would be that he did not realize the gun was real, in which case he would have been using appropriate caution for a fake gun. But he knew the gun was real and instead claims he never pulled the trigger. That is far-fetched, and even if true, he still failed gun safety 101. So he is still liable for involuntary manslaughter.
And not only is this an easy case but it’s also a necessary one for appropriate deterrence. We commonly put ourselves in danger willingly because we assume others have done their job. We visit haunted houses, assuming the man with the chainsaw safely operates the chainsaw. We go sky-diving, assuming the instructor has inspected the parachute. We live near railroads, assuming the operators have checked their brakes. And when it comes to guns, we need to know the operators are not careless, drunk or ill-trained. Even if they are famous.
Some may think that Baldwin, the star, exercised due caution because he was permitted to rely on his staff. Maybe, under this thinking, he’s more like the bungee jumper — who does not need to check the parachute — than the instructor, who does. But this question is precisely why this case is essential, to explain that operators of weapons always have a duty of care. With guns, we cannot outsource safety, as law-abiding gun owners fervently agree.
Maintaining dangerous equipment and activity in society is a necessary thing. Airplanes, cars, guns, chemicals and so on are essential to society. But they require prosecutors and courts to continually demand that operators of these dangerous activities exercise caution. Baldwin is no exception.