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After the Rust shooting, one expert unpacks how people cope with accidental killings

A vigil celebrates cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in Albuquerque, N.M. Hutchins was killed on set while filming the movie <em>Rust</em> when a prop firearm held by actor Alec Baldwin discharged.
Andres Leighton
A vigil celebrates cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in Albuquerque, N.M. Hutchins was killed on set while filming the movie Rust when a prop firearm held by actor Alec Baldwin discharged.

The death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust is a double tragedy.

It is an unthinkable loss for her family and for the film community in which she was a rising star.

And it has weighed on Alec Baldwin, who held the prop gun that fired the fatal shot during a rehearsal.

"There are no words to convey my shock and sadness regarding the tragic accident that took the life of Halyna Hutchins, a wife, mother and deeply admired colleague of ours," Baldwin wrote on Twitter.

At a press briefing Wednesday, the Santa Fe County District Attorney said it was too early in the investigation for charges. The public facts, so far, suggest that Baldwin killed Hutchins unintentionally — a situation Maryann Gray knows too well.

"I was not driving recklessly, and Brian was just being an exuberant kid," she told NPR in 2003. It was the first time she had spoken publicly about hitting and killing an 8-year-old boy who had run in front of her car when she was 22 years old. "Although the justice system absolved me of any legal responsibility, I blame myself for his death. For 25 years I've thought of Brian every day."

In light of the death of Halyna Hutchins, NPR's Sarah McCammon spoke with Gray again. She's a psychologist who founded Accidental Impacts, a support group for people who have unintentionally caused a death or injury.

Her group offers sessions for those stricken by guilt, fear and other related traumas. But she urges people to separate lack of intention from accountability or responsibility.

"We were the agent of another person's death, and that deserves very serious consideration," she says. "So I always try to emphasize that the fact that we suffer does not make us victims. We are much more like perpetrators than we are like victims. We do suffer — and we need to accept responsibility for the harm that was done."

Interview highlights

On how often unintentional killings happen

In fact, unintentional killing sadly happens far more often than most people realize. From my own research, I feel very confident saying that a minimum of 30,000 people per year in the U.S. alone unintentionally kill someone. Hundreds of thousands more unintentionally injure someone seriously enough that they need emergency room or hospital care.

The whole issue is understudied because it's so terrifying ... We like to believe that good people do good things and bad people do bad things. But life doesn't always work out that way, and it's very frightening to realize that. It's much easier to turn away.

On the language she uses around unintended killings

We do not have a language for it. When I talk with people in the situation, I typically use the phrase CADI, which stands for "caused accidental death or injury." However, there are many people who object to the use of the word "accident" because they believe that implies that nothing could have been done to prevent what took place — not only was it unintentional, but that it was unpreventable. And from that point of view, like pedestrian advocates and bicycle advocates, object to the use of the word accident. So out of respect for them in professional settings, I usually use the phrase "unintentional killer." But that's such a harsh word, killer. And it sounds so unfeeling. I'm not comfortable with really either of those phrases.

On the types of support that can help people traumatized by their unintentional killings

First, I believe that psychotherapy can be very helpful, and I routinely recommend that to pretty much anyone who unintentionally killed or seriously injured someone. Beyond that, I think it's important to be able to tell one's story. I believe that these tragedies have no inherent meaning, but we create meaning. So when we tell our story, when we talk about it, when we receive support and compassion, we can begin to create that meaning. ...

Once the issues of trauma and accountability are more stable and manageable, I think the most important step toward healing and creating some form of peace is to find ways to honor our victims. I try to honor the memory of the little boy that I hit and killed Brian by being the very best person I can. Life is fragile, and no one knows it better than us. It's precious. So let's use the time we have wisely and try to make the world a better place. ...

What's important, I believe, is to do that in honor of the victim and in memory of the victim. And in doing that, we can never make up for what we did. We can never even the scales. But we can regain a sense of agency and efficacy that we not only do bad things, but we can also do good things in the world. And we regain a sense of belonging to community; we're less isolated. And finally, we regain a measure of self-respect, trust in ourselves and then peace.

On the advice she gives to unintentional killers about reaching out to victims' families

What I believe is that if the unintentional killer is hoping or wanting some kind of forgiveness, acceptance, validation, understanding — they're probably not ready to approach this family because the family may not choose to provide that, and they should not be put in a position where that's expected or even asked of them. But if and when the unintentional killer can just speak from the heart and say, you know, "Your child lives in my heart, I think of him every day and in his memory, I've tried to be a better person," that can be super powerful and healing. There's no expectation that the family needs to respond in any way at all. And yet it's a message of connection and caring and compassion that can be very powerful when someone is able to do that. ... But I think respect for the victim's family and acceptance of their feelings and their needs should drive that decision.

Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted this interview for the Web.

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Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.