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Best answer yet to Navy Yard shooting: Starbucks' declaration

A day after the Navy Yard shooting, Starbucks stands up for customers to be free of guns in stores. Such declarations to protect the innocent can help change the gun-safety debate.

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    Colette Turner, left, observes a moment of silence during a vigil in honor of Richard Ridgell in Westminster, Md. Sept. 17. Ridgell was killed in Monday's shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington.
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Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, made a declaration of intent on Tuesday. It is not one he will enforce nor will it be one made very visible in the chain’s 12,000-plus stores. Rather, Mr. Schultz merely took a moral stand. Guns, he stated, “should not be part of the Starbucks experience” for customers.

Those who now bring a gun into Starbucks will be politely served but not made to feel very welcome because, as Schultz put it, they make others “fairly uncomfortable.”

His here-I-stand declaration, coming a day after the mass killing at the Washington Navy Yard, could end up doing more to curb gun violence than another political debate over new gun laws. “We don’t have the votes,” declared majority leader Harry Reid when asked if the Senate might act in response to the navy yard shooting.

Even after last year’s killing of children in Newtown, Conn., the Senate failed to pass a bill to tighten background checks. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has the money to defeat lawmakers who oppose it. Only a handful of states have since toughened gun laws. 

Starbucks’ declaration is an echo of a historic shift in public attitudes that began in 1971 in the way people viewed tobacco smoking. Instead of focusing on a smoker’s health, the focus shifted to the effects of smoking on innocent bystanders. The nonsmoker must be protected in confined places, declared then-Surgeon General Jesse Steinfeld. From that, businesses began to set up nonsmoking zones. States then enforced such zones in public areas. A social stigma developed against smoking. Over time, smoking rates declined from 42 percent in 1965 to around 20 percent today.

A moral cause, inspired by individual concern for the innocent, led to a social movement that led to new laws. While today’s polls show overwhelming support for new gun laws, not enough Americans take as prominent or as moral a stand as Starbucks has.

Other retailers might now join in. Disney already bans guns in its theme parks. California Pizza Kitchen bans guns in its restaurants. Many big investors are withdrawing funds from gun manufacturers.

Other social movements could contribute to a grass-roots shift away from America’s violent gun culture. Young people, for example, are less interested in hunting than past generations (video games are a substitute). More people now see health – which includes freedom from gun violence – as an individual right.

Proclaiming what is good in society and worthy of protection – even if it is only a few minutes of freedom from fear in a Starbucks – will do more to influence new gun laws than simply holding a view on new gun restrictions.

The best route for laws against gun violence may now be ballot initiatives – rather than placing one’s hope on lawmakers who cower before the NRA. Voters in Maine and Washington State, for example, may soon see such ballot measures. They are the result of millions of individuals taking a stand that gun violence should not be part of their experience.

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