Fifth Third: Signs not posted to keep criminals out; They want to keep YOU out

The following story was published by American Banker Online on January 7, 2004. The Wall Street Journal republished the story on its subscription website, www.online.wsj.com (and mentioned OFCC in its Morning Update email blast), that same day. It is being republished here with permission.

When reading this story, it is important to keep in mind that the striking comments made by Fifth Third Bank's vice president of investigations were made immediately prior to the shooting of Officer Bryan Hurst at a Fifth Third branch in Columbus, and published on the very day Hurst was killed.

January 7, 2005
American Banker Online

Ohio Debate: Do Customers and Guns Mix?

by Katie Kuehner-Hebert

A year-old Ohio law letting more people carry concealed guns has ignited a debate there over whether banks posting "no guns" signs in branch windows may attract would-be robbers rather than deter them.

Most states used to severely restrict "concealed carry" to off-duty law officers and the like. But Ohio, like 37 other states, now makes such licenses available to most people.

The licenses let them take hidden weapons anywhere except to schools, hospitals, courthouses, certain other structures - and banks or other companies that post no-guns signs. And banks have the right not to serve violators, said Michael E. Brooks, a Federal Bureau Investigation spokesman for the Columbus and Cincinnati region.

Ohioans for Concealed Carry claims that such signs in banks may attract armed robbers.

"Take-over style robberies are on the rise here, and many of the banks with signs are the ones getting robbed," said a spokesman for the group, Ken Hanson of the Firestone, Brhem, Hanson, Nelson, Wolf & Young LLP law firm in Delaware, Ohio.

"If a criminal is looking for a place to rob, and they are given a choice, which option are they going to choose - the place 'possibly with guns' or the place 'definitely without guns?' "

As evidence, admittedly inconclusive, Mr. Hanson cites FBI data: Robbers threatened tellers or patrons with guns in 28% of the bank jobs last year in the 10-county Columbus area, up from an average of about 20% in previous years.

"At least it is clear that the signs do not deter criminals," Mr. Hanson said.

Darrin Steinmann, vice president of investigations at Fifth Third Bank in Cincinnati, adamantly disputes the idea that the signs attract robbers. The unit of $91 billion-asset Fifth Third Bancorp posts such signs in its branches in Ohio and northern Kentucky.

"I just think there are certain banks in certain locations that are more likely to get robbed than others," Mr. Steinmann said. "In fact, we've had situations where uniformed police officers carrying weapons were inside banking centers, and these centers were still robbed."

Fifth Third posts "no guns" signs to lessen the chance that someone will get hurt in any kind of situation, he said.

So does FirstMerit Bank, a unit of $10.2 billion-asset FirstMerit Bancorp in Akron, Ohio, which also prohibits other weapons such as switchblades, swords, and martial arts implements, according to spokesman, Jacque Sir Louis.

Mr. Brooks, the FBI spokesman, said that though armed robberies have been rising in the Columbus and Cincinnati region, he did not want to discuss the prudence of placing "no guns" signs in bank branches.

But Robert Hawk, an FBI spokesman for the Cleveland region, said the signs make no difference. "People rob banks primarily for one reason, to get money for drugs or some other addiction," Mr. Hawk said. "They couldn't care less whether or not there was a sign on the door."

Mr. Hawk said armed bank robberies have not risen in the Cleveland region since the law went into effect. He did not give specific figures.

Huntington National Bank, a unit of $32 billion-asset Huntington Bancshares Inc. in Columbus, has branches in four states with similar laws but has not posted "no guns" signs in any of them, said Jay Gould, senior vice president of investor relations.

"We just have yet to find that those are effective deterrents," Mr. Gould said. Huntington relies on "sophisticated security systems" to ensure the safety of its customers and employees, he said.

He would not discuss whether such signs would attract robbers.

In Texas, the posting of "no guns" signs in banks and other businesses after a similar law was adopted in 1996 triggered an uproar from gun owners, said Jim Dark, the executive director of the Texas State Rifle Association. A lot of banks and companies have removed their signs, he said.

Now, Mr. Dark said, he hears only of "milder" protests. For example, he said, some gun owners encountering "no guns" signs that are still displayed place "No guns, no dollars" cards on the counters and take their business elsewhere.

"While we don't disagree with the notion that private property owners have the right to post such signs, we don't think it's a smart idea to do it," Mr. Dark said. "It's a liability issue: when a property owner tells everyone that they're effectively becoming responsible for their security, one of these days someone is going to get shot, and the property owner is going to be sued."

Mr. Hanson of the Ohio group said bills have been introduced in Georgia and Arizona, which both license residents to carry concealed weapons, to hold property owners liable if they post "no guns" signs and someone is injured or killed through a criminal act on the premises.

"Banks and other companies shouldn't take away the constitutional and statutory rights of citizens to defend themselves," Mr. Hanson said.

But the FBI's Mr. Brooks said the bureau discourages people from taking the law into their own hands by turning robberies into gunfights.

"We even train our agents not to confront someone with a gun inside a bank," Mr. Brooks said. "Our aim is to get the robber outside of the bank" and then make an arrest.

Fifth Third's Mr. Steinmann said that his bank rightly trains its employees not to fight robbers but just hand them the money. He points to another FBI statistic that he contends backs up that strategy: Out of the 7,465 U.S. bank robberies committed in 2003, fewer than 2% resulted in injury or death.

"Our No. 1 priority is the protection of our employees and customers," Mr. Steinmann said.

Commentary:

(This photo, which appeared on the front page of the Willoughby News Herald in June, depicts a law enforcement agent dusting for fingerprints next to a "no-guns" sign at a Fifth Third bank.)

Faced with increased incidents of violent encounters in "no-guns" banks, and confronted by quotes from FBI agents blasting the notion that these signs deter criminals, anti-gun bank officials have joined the gun ban lobby in trying to claim criminal deterrence isn't really what the signs are intended for after all.

By admitting that the reasons for posting "no-guns" signs has nothing to do with deterring criminal attack, Fifth Third Bank has unwittingly revealed what OFCC has longheld - that these signs truly are nothing more than discriminatory bans against law-abiding citizens engaged in a constitutionally-protected activity. What's more, while Fifth Third officials did admit to posting signs in northern Kentucky as well as throughout Ohio, they neglected to mention the fact that they do NOT post signs in their Tennessee branches (OFCC confirmed this fact by visual inspection of several Nashville-area branches over the past weekend). Other OFCC supporters report there are also no discriminatory signs on Fifth Third banks in Michigan or Indiana.

So it has now been established that Ohio-based Fifth Third Bank has a distinct mistrust of its law-abiding customers who have received extensive training and who possess Ohio Concealed Handgun Licenses - a mistrust that apparently does NOT carry over to citizens in many other states.

The new claim is that law-abiding citizens in Ohio just can't be trusted to appropriately evaluate a situation before acting to defend themselves. But there are multiple problems with this argument, not the least of which is that citizens ARE acting appropriately in non-posted banks across Ohio and around the nation every day.

In May 2002, when a bank robbers vs. police gun fight spilled into the streets in posh Nashville suburb of Brentwood, Tennessee, the eleven Tennessee Handgun Carry Permit-holders who were on hand as witnesses all acted as per their training, letting law enforcement do its job, and staying out of the fight because they did not determine their own lives were at risk. Why does Fifth Third think so much less judgement can be expected from its Ohio customers?

The Fifth Third official quoted in this story claims that the policy is intended to "lessen the chance that someone will get hurt", and notes that fewer than 2% of bank robberies nationwide resulted in injury or death. How much consolation would that policy or these statistics have been had Officer Hurst's murderer next fired upon a defenseless customer last week? How can Fifth Third or First Merit to ask citizens to play these deadly odds in order to do business with them?

The human right of self-defense does not end at the door to these discriminatory banks, and those businesses who affirmatively act to disarm their customers should bear the full weight of liability for the injuries and deaths that result.

Fifth Third accepts customer feedback on its website, or by phone at 1-800-972-3030.

Related Stories:
Ohio gun ban lobbyist admits ''no-guns'' signs won't stop criminals

FBI: 'Takeover' robbers more likely to use their guns

FBI: More bank robbers used guns in their crimes last year

FBI: Ohio bank heists with violent component on the rise

IS CRIME ON THE INCREASE IN POSTED BUSINESSES?

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