When Donald Trump floated his crazy idea about arming teachers with guns in schools, it jogged my memory.
In 1976, I was a university bursar with the Commonwealth Bank, and we were required to spend our first vacation in a branch. I worked three months in Engadine branch, and there was a hand gun in an open cupboard next to my desk. Just sitting there innocently on the shelf, next to the stapler and tin money boxes.
I sent out a note to some former colleagues from that era, asking if anyone could confirm branches had guns lying around and if so, what were we supposed to do with them.
What came back was often hilarious, but also deeply troubling. I reproduce here with minor editing, removing any identifiers.
Story 1: Union rules, carry the gun in a fabric bag and don’t touch it
When I left school in 1978, I worked in Stock and Share Department, which was on the corner of George and Market in the city. There was a trading bank on the ground floor and we were on the 8th floor. On paydays, the staff clerk collected all the withdrawal slips from the staff. You were asked to fill out a slip saying how much of your pay you wanted to take in cash. This was so that staff were not continually traipsing down to the branch and clogging up the queues.
She (the staff clerk) took them down to the branch, collected all the cash (which could be quite a lot – Stock and Share must have had about 100 employees) and brought it back up to distribute it.
Bank policy was that she had to be accompanied down the fire stair (using the lift was considered a security risk) by a male staff member carrying a gun. One day, I was asked to fill this role.
Union policy, on the other hand, was that they did not want their members exposed to attack from criminals. They therefore did not want their members to be seen carrying the gun, nor did they want their members to risk their lives for the bank’s money. So – this was apparently the compromise solution – I was given the gun, but it was in a fabric bag, and I was told that under no circumstances was I to take the gun out of the bag or attempt to defend the staff clerk or the money in the event we were robbed.
So I climbed up and down the 8 flights of fire stairs carrying (very carefully as I had never touched a gun before) this fabric bag with a gun in it that I was under no circumstances to use, to provide ‘protection’ to our staff clerk. I am sure this made her feel much safer!
Story 2: Women could not handle the gun
In 1964 -1965 I was working at Sydney University branch. Every morning at precisely the same time a colleague and I would walk precisely the same route across the University from the Parramatta Road side to City Road. Beyond retrospective disbelief at the lack of variety in our approach (obviously would be thieves were of a nicer class of people in those days), my colleague and I each carried a gun in a holster. A bit like the Cobb and Co gold delivery without the horses
The introduction of female tellers started the end of guns in branches. When our female colleagues were finally allowed to handle cash, they were not allowed to have access to a gun. Many young male tellers were very comfortable to also give up the ‘privilege’, especially as new security features like the exploding bank notes filled with indelible ink and then the rising screens started to make their introduction.
Story 3: Half a million in a tin box, gun in pocket
CBA Townsville branch doubled up as the Reserve Bank’s dispenser of new notes for the banking system in the region in the 1960s and 1970s. At Christmas time there could be as much as $50 million in notes in the branch vault.
One of the jobs was to destroy old notes and send new notes to different towns. I can vividly remember walking a tin box with $500k in it to the Post Office, signing it in for sending by train to Cairns and wandering back to the branch with my trusty bank pistol in my pocket!
I am pretty sure the PO people were unaware the box contained cash. I was told if I were accosted, to hand the cash over without resistance. But if you were confident about not hitting any bystanders, you might think about giving the villains a hurry up!
Story 4: Gun taken home then dropped and it discharged
What great stories … and I confirm them.
In Victoria as a 16-year-old teller, I was given a pistol and six bullets to take home on the train and then report first thing the next morning at the Reserve Bank pistol range in the city. I brought back my target sheet with 2 holes in the bullseye and I still have that treasured item!
Oh … the gun but no bullets were returned to the branch in case you were wondering!
The guns at the many suburban branches where I worked were indeed kept in tellers’ drawers during open hours but stored in the vault at night. I vividly recall one of my colleagues dropping a pistol inside the vault and it discharging! I dodged a bullet you might say! True story.
Story 4: 17 years of age and given the duty of ‘escort officer’ with a gun
Shortly after starting work at 96 William Street, Adelaide (17 years of age) was assigned to the duty of ‘escort officer’ being required to walk with the carrier of cash and negotiables to the Reserve Bank some 600 metres away. I pointed out that I had never used a gun and was reassured that it probably wouldn’t be needed as it hadn’t been previously.
I can recall the pistol being kept in a cupboard which allowed easy access to anyone during the day. However, it was locked at night. I can vividly recall one thing. On one very hot day the cash carrier and I stopped for a milkshake on our return trip. While perched on a high stool the pistol eased itself out of my pocket and proceeded to bounce across the tiled floor of the shop in which, fortunately, we were the only customers. I can’t remember how long I held the ‘escort officer’ position but I was very happy to be replaced.
Story 5: Gun discharges, bullet hits roof, audit finds bullet missing
Serving at Coolangatta during holiday times with the CBA as the local cash issuing/collecting (same day/same time each week) certainly made us stand out but we still strolled 150 metres down the road with rather suspicious boxes full of cash (at least the holes were punched in the notes but who knew that).
A lot of comfort was taken by having the pretty much useless .38 deep in our pocket with the extra ‘security’ of another suspicious looking officer walking 15 metres behind with another weapon that Wyatt Earp wouldn’t have been able to draw in a week. The boxes were very causally treated by the PO staff, left lying on a counter out the back beside the open back door!
At Mt Isa, we had an occasional service centre at the Mines Barracks in a tin shed. Unfortunately, one of the officers on duty on one occasion accidentally dropped the weapon which discharged and put a hole through the shed roof. The noise was deafening and so was the manager’s investigation at the audit that found one bullet missing that was not otherwise reported.
Shooting range was always fun especially when the old bullets had to be replaced so we were able to shoot more than the regulated 5 or 10 shots. At least it confirmed that with the .38 being a very heavy ‘can’t shoot straight’ weapon, we were never going to be a real threat to anyone in a time of ‘anger’ and couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a handful of wheat.
Story 6: Gun taken home to shoot some chooks
Joined Redfern branch 1968. Had a pistol which was locked away in my teller tin and put in the safe at night. Trained to shoot in Martin Place (boy, did a pistol kick on first use). Another teller took his gun home one night and shot some of his neighbour’s chooks. Needless to say he got dismissed and the Branch Accountant was in deep s— for not seeing the gun away at night.
Story 7: Take cab, deliver foreign notes, don’t forget the gun
To add a bit more colour, on attachment to Overseas Department Sydney in the early 60’s, I had to take a parcel of foreign currency to the Central Parcel Office at Central Railway by cab and was given a revolver to take with me. No training or any idea how to use it. On alighting from the cab at Central, it fell from my pocket onto the floor of the cab, to the consternation of the driver.
Story 8: Bank gun used for suicide was not unusual
Late 1950’s, aged say 16, I collected registered mail from the Sydney GPO via the tunnel under Pitt St (over the Tank Stream). My collection and delivery of the mail was supported by three hand guns – I believe a .22, a .32 and I think a .45.
One delivery each day was to George & Market Sts branch and I always selected the bigger gun and holster so it was more obvious to pedestrians under my unbuttoned suit coat???
Playing with one of the guns in a room off Overseas Department (ground floor, Martin & Pitt Sts branch), I half-cocked the gun and jammed a bullet. I spent many, many very anxious minutes clearing the weapon, avoiding it going off to the consternation of staff, customers and me!
A good friend took his life with the bank’s gun at an inner west branch. I believe this was not that unusual. The training and practice firing range in the Elizabeth St and Martin Place branch had a full-time instructor. I never received any weapons training.
Story 9: Waving the gun around, how many shots left?
My favourite memory of guns in the CBA was in 1957 at Maitland NSW. The entire branch staff were at the local rifle range for ‘pistol practice’ under the watchful eye of the manager. One by one we stepped forward onto the mat and were handed the pistol. It was already loaded and all we had to do was release the safety catch, point at the target and fire six shots.
The remainder of the staff were located immediately behind the ‘shooter’ in an extended line. And of course, offering their learned advice. The manager’s final instruction was to face forward until all shots had been fired.
Things went great until the office junior stepped forward and took control of the pistol. She looked so professional and almost hit the target with her 4th shot. Then, alas, she turned around, faced everyone and said, “How many shots have I got left?” No one answered as everyone had gone to ground.
There was no more pistol practice that day or in the following year.
Story 10: Rebuilding the gun, and more suicide
I can confirm all the gun stories. I was a teller in 1958 aged 18 when tellers were supposed to be at least 21 years of age. In my second branch posting, I was on the counter as the only teller at a small branch with no training except observation. And of course, I was given control of the gun, which was a Browning .32. The gun was kept in a leather holster under the counter in the teller’s box and locked away in cash tin overnight.
Like others, we later had some gun training at the range in Martin Place. There were strict instructions and processes for cleaning the gun which I would do between customers whenever the work book said it was due. The most important instruction said never to twist the gun barrel.
Anyway this day I did twist the barrel, I think on purpose, and the gun exploded into a bunch of spare parts with a couple of large pieces and many small pieces and springs. I thought this was the end of my banking career so I tried to put it back together with no luck. I put the large gun pieces together and they looked like the gun enough so that the Manager when he checked my cash tin to go away overnight could see the gun. All the small pieces were in a tobacco tin in my teller’s drawer. Every time I got a chance when the Manager was not looking, I tried to put the gun back together.
This went on for a couple of months but no luck with the reassembly. I kept at it and one day it all clicked back together, and I had no leftover parts. Soon after we went to Martin Place for our regular shoot and of course I had to take the gun but there was no way I was going to shoot with it. I went to the man in charge and softly asked him if he would give my gun a careful check over. He turned to my workmates and some from other branch people and very loudly said, “HERE IS ANOTHER ONE WHO TWISTED THE BARREL.”
One tragic matter … I was at Petersham branch when the cleaner came in early one morning to find the manager had used the office gun to suicide in his office. That would have been in late 1950s or early 1960s.
Yes, they were simpler and more innocent times, and no doubt procedures would be tighter now. But it has been estimated that with about 3.4 million teachers in the US, if only 20% had guns, that would be another 700,000 in circulation.
More guns, more accidents, more killings, more suicides. Not so innocent then.
Graham Hand is Managing Editor of Cuffelinks.