Levi’s stores asks gun owners to leave their weapons at home

The Levi's position on guns could signal an emerging moral stance about safety in public spaces. Could non-smoking areas be a model for gun-free spaces? 

Eric Risberg/AP/File
People walk by a sale sign at the entrance of the Levi's store on Union Square in San Francisco in 2010. Levi Strauss & Co. President and CEO Chip Bergh asked customers and employees in an open letter posted on LinkedIn Wednesday not to bring guns into its stores, offices, or facilities, even in states where it’s legal.

Do you need a gun to shop for jeans? Not at Levi’s, says the company’s chief executive officer.

In an open letter posted by LinkedIn on Wednesday, CEO Chip Bergh asked customers not to carry firearms into Levi’s stores – even in states where it’s legal to do so with a permit. Mr. Bergh, who is a former US Army captain, has stressed that the company isn’t taking a political stance on gun ownership; rather that the decision was about safety, citing an incident where a Levi’s shopper was injured by an unintentional discharge.

Levi Strauss & Co. isn’t the first company to make such a request – Starbucks, Chipotle, Target, and Panera Bread have also asked customers not to bring guns into their stores. But this is the first high-profile instance after the 2016 elections, which created a conservative bloc in both Congress and the presidency. If national regulations around gun ownership and use are unlikely to change over the next four years, the Levi's position could signal an emerging moral stance about safety in public spaces. 

“We know that the presence of firearms in our stores creates an unsettling environment for many of our employees and customers,” Bergh said. “We also know that trying to enforce a ban could potentially undermine the purpose of the ban itself: safety. With that in mind we’ve made this decision as a business – a request not a mandate – and we sincerely hope responsible gun owners will respect our position.”

Although some Levi's customers have already promised to boycott the company, it’s still unclear what the overall public response will be. Some gun owners may ease up on businesses like Levi’s, sensing that their Second Amendment rights are safer under an impending Trump presidency. But it’s also possible that pro-gun activists, emboldened by a strong conservative government presence, may push harder on perceived anti-gun businesses, say political observers.

But whether concealed carry and open carry laws remain intact, there is a social precedent for limiting guns in public spaces. The US Capitol has been a gun-free zone since 1967, although visitors could enter without a metal detector scan until 1983. The building has only tightened security in the last few decades, even as conservative legislators have loosened federal gun restrictions.

Meanwhile, a number of high-profile businesses have adopted voluntary gun restrictions in their stores. Each of these companies has faced boycotts and backlash, but the approach has worked before. In 2013, after Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz asked customers not to carry in-store, The Christian Science Monitor’s editorial board wrote:

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... A social stigma developed against smoking. Over time, smoking rates declined from 42 percent in 1965 to around 20 percent today.

“It left the territory of paternalism – protecting the smoker – and went to respecting the interests of third parties,” David DeGrazia, a professor of philosophy at George Washington University and author of “Debating Gun Control,” tells the Monitor in a phone interview.

Today, the controversy surrounding non-smoking zones appears to have fizzled out entirely. For the most part, smokers haven’t stopped eating at smoke-free restaurants. And although some states have restricted outdoor smoking areas, non-smokers generally accept that public sidewalks are not restricted.

Of course, the stakes are somewhat different. Guns are framed in terms of immediate mortal peril, both by gun control advocates who consider them dangerous and by gun owners who view them as protection. Smoking, although considered a health hazard, is thought to present a more gradual threat. But could the gun debate follow the same path to de-escalation?

“There does seem to be an analogy here,” Dr. DeGrazia says. “Firearms can be disturbing to customers’ sense of security, whether or not they actually increase the risk of injury. If there is not only legal permission to carry arms into stores, but a culture in which a lot of people do, a lot of people might feel they won’t be safe unless they too carry guns.”

Critics would disagree, but some observers note that Levi’s has taken a moral stance, rather than a political one. Some say the question isn’t whether civilians should be armed, but whether there are places in our society where guns may not belong. Under federal law, guns are currently prohibited from being carried into commercial aircraft, post offices, federal courts, prisons, and the visitor centers of national parks.

The Levi's position could reinvigorate the conversation about safety in public spaces for both gun control and gun rights advocates. 

“It's true that businesses should be wary about alienating customers,” DeGrazia says. “But on the other hand, if a critical mass of businesses do that, some customers might prefer to shop at those businesses. Just as people who hate cigarette smoke might have avoided [smoke-friendly] restaurants, people who have the same anxiety about guns might avoid businesses where firearms are allowed.”

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