An Arizona senator is working to change state policy following an investigation that found that the Arizona Department of Public Safety has issued licenses to armed guards who are banned by federal law from possessing a gun.

The joint investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN found that Arizona is among 27 states that do not run the names of armed-guard applicants through the federal database of prohibited possessors.

The search, which is run-of-the-mill for anyone purchasing a gun at a licensed gun shop, flags individuals who are not allowed to buy, carry or own guns.

“You’re telling me if I’m opening a gun store and somebody wants to buy a gun, I can run a name in five seconds, but the Department of Public Safety can’t? What is wrong with that picture?” said Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills.

“Worst comes to worst, we’ll open up an Arizona gun store and see if that works.”

Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves said the agency would need legislative authorization to perform the checks. Kavanagh said that he is working closely with the department to change the policy and that he is prepared to introduce legislation if the department needs it to gain access to the database.

Steve Amitay, executive director of the National Association of Security Companies, said many in the security industry would support the change. He said he had not realized the checks were not already routine.

“We are 100 percent behind being able to know if a person applying for a contract security license is prohibited from having a firearm,” Amitay said. “Obviously, if a company is hiring a security officer and he’s going to have a gun and this guy is not even allowed to possess a gun ­– if you don’t think that’s going to come back to bite the company, you’re crazy.”

Other states also are exploring regulatory changes to address problems exposed by the CIR and CNN investigation.

California Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said he is concerned that regulators in the state do not require a mental health exam for armed-guard applicants and might not require enough firearms training, including in how and when guards should use their guns. California ranks 17th in the country for the number of hours of firearms training guards are required to receive.

“I think we have a responsibility to make sure that (licensed armed guards) are capable of, one, carrying the weapon, but also, two, capable of conducting their job in a way that is in keeping with the uniform that they’re wearing and the perception that the public has,” Hill said. “The public expects that. I expect that.”

Hill, who is chairman of the California Senate’s Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee, said he plans to quiz the state Bureau of Security and Investigative Services about its oversight practices at an upcoming hearing of the Joint Sunset Review Committee, which examines waste and inefficiency in government agencies.

The committee previously had scheduled a written report, called a sunset review, and a March 18 hearing on the bureau. Bureau Chief Laura Alarcon did not respond to requests for comment.

Kijuan Byrd, with his former fiancée, Latrice Hill, was fatally shot by a security guard outside a Miami strip club in 2012.Credit: Courtesy of Arlene Byrd Credit: Courtesy of Arlene Byrd

Hill said he wants to ask about topics central to the CIR and CNN investigation, including how regulators investigate security guard shootings, verify the mental well-being of applicants and how quickly they take action against a guard’s license after an arrest or conviction.

“These licensees are carrying a gun. They’re out in public in situations that could warrant their use of those weapons,” Hill said. “I think we have to look seriously at the use of firearms and the training that goes into it, and the mental health aspects of those licensees.”

Some advocates also are pressuring federal lawmakers to increase standards for armed guards.

A petition calling on Congress to create federal standards for armed guards has drawn more than 25,000 signatures so far. Shamara Byrd, the stepsister of a man shot and killed by a security guard in Miami in 2012, created the petition, which calls for minimum training standards; increased background checks and oversight of armed guards, including mental health evaluations; and a national database of security guard shootings.

After Byrd’s stepbrother was killed, “we learned that the armed security guard industry is rife with loopholes that legally give guns to individuals who should not have them,” Byrd wrote in a message to supporters.

“The armed security guard who took my brother’s life was fortunately arrested and charged with murder; however, he should not have been working as a ‘hired’ armed security guard in the first place.”

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.