Armed security guards are getting even less vetting than some regulators think.

Twelve states that reported that they are running guard applicants through an FBI records check actually are obtaining only a fingerprint-based criminal background check. Although more precise in many ways, it does not search for mental health commitments, restraining orders or other records that would prevent the applicants from carrying a gun.

That means that only 11 states in the nation do a thorough scrub before they license armed guards. Called the prohibited possessor check, it’s a run-of-the-mill screening process for anyone who purchases a gun from a federally licensed firearms dealer.

When previously surveyed by Reveal, some regulators were under the impression that they were vetting armed guards for these records. But it turns out that the FBI background checks most states receive are much more limited in scope. They typically generate criminal history information, but not other records that could show an armed-guard applicant has lost the right to bear arms.

In Alabama, regulators said they were surprised to learn their screening process does not include a prohibited possessor search.

“Whatever we’ve told you is what we’ve been told and what has been relayed to us. So outside of that, I don’t know,” said Assistant Attorney General Cameron McEwen, who supervises the Alabama Security Regulatory Board. He said he wants access to that information.

“Yes, we want to have the most extensive background check,” he said. “We want to vet these individuals as much as we can to eliminate any possibility to have anything that they’re hiding that would be a danger to society.”

Federal law prohibits widespread use of the prohibited possessor database. But according to the FBI, it’s allowed under certain circumstances, such as for some kinds of firearm purchases or vetting someone for a firearms-related permit.

That means states could have access to the deeper information if they were issuing firearms permits instead of armed-guard licenses. The seemingly small semantic distinction could make a world of difference for armed-guard licensing purposes, some industry officials said.

The distinction came to light when an Arizona state legislator tried to require the more thorough checks earlier this year and ran into a wall following a December report from The Center for Investigative Reporting, Reveal’s parent organization, about violence and other problems in the guard industry.

In Arizona, regulators issue an armed-guard license, not a firearms permit, preventing the state Department of Public Safety from conducting the check.

Reached by phone, Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said he planned to introduce legislation to make the change in the next session.

Reveal resurveyed 12 states that had reported in 2014 receiving the checks and found that they largely were relying on fingerprint checks, not the name-based clearance to possess guns.

California is among the states doing the full search. State regulators send the fingerprints of armed-guard applicants to the state Department of Justice, which conducts several types of background checks on armed guards, including the prohibited possessor search through the FBI. A guard cannot receive a firearms permit without this clearance.

Still, FBI officials acknowledge that a prohibited possessor search might not be comprehensive. But Jonathan Hutson, spokesman for the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said it’s an extra step worth taking.

“Let’s not let perfect be the enemy of the good,” Hutson said. “If you are not legally allowed to own a gun, you have no business being an armed security guard.”

Some states have bolstered the process with other requirements. For instance, in California, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, recently introduced legislation to require mental health evaluations for armed guards. Four other states already require such evaluations.

Shoshana Walter

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.