Guns designed to fire only blanks can be subject to complex firearms regulations that vary by state. Even debris discharged by blanks can cause fatal injury. Safety protocols around prop guns are determined by schools or their districts, and often include securing them so they are not mistaken for real weapons and never pointing them directly at someone or within close range.
Jesse Fabian, 15, who played Action in the musical, is the president of #NeverAgain Venice High School, a student group that he said has sent more than 400 handwritten letters to Congress urging action on gun control. Even in the context of a play, he was unsettled having a gun pointed at him, he said. “It’s terrifying because although it’s a prop, it looks so realistic.”
Traci Thrasher, the director of the school’s drama department, said that because she believes people have become so desensitized to gun violence, she wanted the play’s use of a prop weapon to resonate in a visceral way. “It looks and sounds like a real gun,” she said. “It’s a tad bit jarring.”
Still, J & M Special Effects, a leading supplier of theatrical weapons to Broadway and amateur productions, said schools seem to be moving away from using prop guns that closely resemble real ones.
Bohdan Bushell, a special effects coordinator for the company, noted that unrealistic prop weapons can often replace more authentic-looking ones with little harm to the play. “There are things that take us out of the story, and that’s not always one of them.”
For the arsenal needed in “Assassins,” Stephen Sondheim’s musical about killers who have taken aim at presidents, a student-mounted production at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., armed the cast with a mix of Nerf guns and more lifelike prop firearms, including a historical replica of a derringer. The characters whose assassination attempts were most successful used the most realistic props.