A new law makes California’s oversight over the booming guard industry one of the strongest in the country. Credit: Sarah Rice for Reveal

From Houston to New Orleans, pride celebrations this month are drawing new participants: armed security guards.

In the wake of mass shootings, businesses, school districts and towns often turn to armed guards.

But armed security guards can introduce a new kind of danger. The Orlando shooter was an armed security guard, vetted by one of the largest security companies in the world, and by Florida regulators. Many states require no vetting at all.

We wanted to understand this industry better. Two years ago, we did a comprehensive examination of armed security guards nationwide. We looked at how armed guards are regulated and vetted in each state.

It turns out that armed security guards often create more violence, and there’s little oversight of guards who shoot their guns.

Here’s what we found:

1. In many states, you can be banned by federal law from buying a gun but still become an armed guard.

In more than half the country, armed guards are not required to go through a prohibited possessor check, the federal background check most people are required to go through when purchasing guns. Most states require criminal background checks, but eight states don’t require anything at all – allowing felons and substance abusers, among others, to become guards with guns.

2. Armed guards receive far less training than police officers.

In 15 states, armed guards do not have to take firearms training. In many other states, laws provide little specificity on what should be included in training curriculum, such as when and how to use force.

3. Guards often shoot their guns with impunity.

Unlike in police shootings, when an armed guard shoots a gun, regulators rarely investigate. Only 12 states have laws or rules requiring armed guards or their employers to report the use of their guns. Some of these states use the reports to investigate whether the guard acted safely and should remain licensed. But even where reports are required, many licensing agencies don’t do anything with them, allowing reckless guards to remain on the job.

4. A mental health evaluation is routine for police officers but not for armed guards.

Forty-six states do not require mental health exams for armed guard applicants.

5. Some states knowingly license corrupt former law enforcement officers as armed guards.

Most regulators don’t bother to ask. Only one state checks whether an armed guard was once a law enforcement officer with a history of abuse. But even that state, Oregon, has never rejected an applicant for bad behavior as a law enforcement officer. Like the Orlando shooter, those who fail as officers or never make it through the academy find easy second careers as armed security guards. In Florida, we found that 13 percent of disciplined armed guards were former law enforcement officers with disciplinary histories or failing grades on their law enforcement training or exams.

6. Armed guards increase the risk of violence.

The likelihood of violence during bank robberies tripled with an armed guard on duty, we found through a statistical analysis of FBI data. The job not only endangers the public, but armed guards themselves. When armed, 64 guards were hurt for every 1,000 bank robberies, compared with less than 1 injury per 1,000 robberies when unarmed.

7. There’s even an armed guard loophole.

In 31 states, armed guards hired directly by a business are not required to go through training or a background check. Known as “proprietary” guards, they work directly for businesses such as shopping malls, convenience stores or tow yards rather than for a security company. In Los Angeles, for example, a Venice Beach hotel owner hired an armed guard who authorities said was a prominent gang member and meth dealer. He is now accused of shooting and killing a homeless man outside the hotel.

See our full Hired Guns investigation here.

Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @shoeshine.


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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.