How Starbucks became the darling of American gun owners

In states that allow open carry for licensed gun owners, Starbucks has refused to put up signs in protest – though some other businesses have. Gun-control advocates have started a boycott, but gun owners are answering with a 'buycott.' 

Lily Bowers/REUTERS/File
People walk past the Starbucks outlet on 47th and 8th Avenue in New York in this file photo. For the second time in three years, Starbucks is at the center of a debate over state open carry gun laws.

When Starbucks started putting outlets on interstate off-ramps a few years ago, it sent a none-too-subtle signal to America: Good coffee isn't just for the high-brow crowd. Now, for the second time in three years, it is reinforcing that point in a way that is putting the chain at the center of the national debate about gun laws in America.

In short, Starbucks won't prohibit customers from openly carrying guns into its stores, at least in states that allow it.

On one hand, the stand is merely a reflection of law: 43 states permit open carry. Yet other companies – such as Peet's Coffee, IKEA, and California Pizza Kitchen all post signs against open carry, even in states where it's allowed.

The ubiquity and popularity of Starbucks, however, makes the chain a far more powerful symbol for both sides of the issue. 

The National Gun Victims Council, which is leading the new boycott, says Starbucks points to the need “to eliminate the risk of guns in public places and ultimately to bring sane gun laws to the US.” Its boycott aims to "reduce Starbucks’ stock price by an amount no rational company would allow.”

But gun-rights advocates are responding with a "buycott" to support the chain. 

The Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence attempted a similar protest of Starbucks in 2010, but Starbucks' held firm. While it is not clear what, if any, impact the protest had, Starbucks' earnings rose by 17 cents per share in 2010, according to a report issued six months after the protest began.

A Los Angeles Times report suggested that the most visible result of this week's boycott was the contrarian buycott, which included Ohio State University students rallying outside an Ohio Starbucks holding signs, including one that said, “Because I CAN'T carry a cop!”

On Wednesday, Starbucks reiterated a stance it publicized in 2010. “As the public debate around this issue continues, we encourage customers and advocacy groups from both sides to share their input with their public officials," the company wrote in a statement. "We are extremely sensitive to the issue of gun violence in our society and believe that supporting local laws is the right way for us to ensure a safe environment for both our partners [employees] and customers."

A coalition of secular, religious, and gun-control groups backing the boycott claim to represent 14 million Americans. But the ability of gun control groups to influence the lawmaking process has waned in recent years, with gun-rights legislation outnumbering gun-control laws by a 3-to-1 margin, according to a recent Associated Press analysis.

The National Gun Victims Council counters that powerful gun lobbies, including the National Rifle Association (NRA), more than popular will are what's behind the loosening of gun laws and policies.

There's no record of anyone being hurt at a Starbucks store by a legal carrying customer, but the brand has had brushes with violence, including the deaths of three people during an armed robbery of a Starbucks near Washington, D.C., in 1997.  In January 2010, the Hell's Angels and Vagos biker gangs fought with weapons that included ball peen hammers over rights to hang out at a Santa Cruz Starbucks.

"Only in Santa Cruz would you have biker wars over who's going to control pumpkin spice lattes," Santa Cruz Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark told Reuters at the time.

Companies that have a broad customer base, including Starbucks, have had to carefully gauge public sentiment when deciding whether or not to post against guns. When the grocery chain Harris Teeter put up “no gun” signs in North Carolina in 2010, Grass Roots North Carolina, a state gun-rights lobbying group, threatened a boycott. The same day, the chain began taking down many of the signs.

“So far, Starbucks is dealing with it smartly,” says Paul Valone, director of Grass Roots North Carolina. “Yeah, they were a Seattle-based, trendy, slightly artsy-crafty chain to begin with, but they have correctly assessed that they're now in middle America and they don't want to offend the sensibilities of middle America in order to pacify a few left-leaning gun-control supporters.”

Public reaction to the Starbucks boycott was mixed on the Opposing Views website, which asked readers to submit comments on its Facebook page.

“So sick and tired if this gun garbage,” reader Lynn Gleason wrote. “If you're someone who is feeling the need to tote around a gun everywhere, ask yourself, 'What it is you're so afraid of,' not, 'Which other pointless location can I suddenly feel the need to be armed?' ”

Reader Paula Qualls Gurley disagreed. “I didn't go today, but will go twice tomorrow. Sick of those who try to extort companies who don't toe their 'line.' I don't own a gun but I don't need the antigun lobby in my business.”

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