Starbucks says 'no guns, please.' Is cultural powerhouse inviting trouble?

Starbucks, whose shops were adopted by gun-rights activists as high-profile places to stage their protests, is taking out ads asking their gun-toting patrons to leave their weapons at home. Please.

Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters/File
Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz speaks during a news conference at a hotel in Bogota, Colombia, August 26, 2013. Starbucks Corp has asked US customers to leave their guns at home after being dragged into an increasingly fractious debate over US gun rights in the wake of multiple mass shootings.

After becoming a popular place for gun owners to carry weapons in kaffeeklatch gun-rights protests, Starbucks, the venerable coffee-slinger, will, in a major policy shift, respectfully ask its gun-toting customers to please leave their firearms at home from now on.

In major newspaper ads to run Thursday, company CEO Howard Schultz will explain that a growing number of “Gun Appreciation Day” rallies at Starbucks locations across the country will have to stop. Muddying the water some, the coffeehouse chain, however, says it’ll still serve customers who carry guns into the store.

“We’ve seen the ‘open carry’ debate become increasingly uncivil and, in some cases, even threatening,” Mr. Schultz writes. “Pro-gun activivists have used our stores as a political stage for media events … that disingenuously portray Starbucks as a champion of ‘open carry.’ … Some anti-gun activists have also played a role in ratcheting up the rhetoric and friction.”

Starbucks is partly a multinational corporation, but has also become, like Apple, a cultural touchstone, making the maneuvering on the gun issue a corporate high-wire act. The irony in the gun debate is that the company has been seen as belonging to a socially progressive milieu, in stark contrast to the more conservative values expressed by members of America’s gun culture.

The company’s decision a decade ago to branch into rural America and interstate off-ramps likely helped it become co-opted by gun rights advocates. Concerned about backlash from those customers, the company has until now continued to allow guns in stores located in the 40 states that allow gun carry.

Recently, the company closed a store for a day in Newtown, Conn., where gun owners had planned a “Gun Appreciation Day.” Last December, a troubled gunman killed 26 people, including 20 school children, at Sandy Hook Elementary school in that town.

The Starbucks move follows the massacre at the Washington Naval Yard on Monday, though Mr. Schultz said the company had already settled on the new policy.

It also comes a few days after two Democratic state senators were recalled in Colorado over their support of new gun-control measures.

The new “no guns at Starbucks” policy is likely to spark a new round of gun-control debate, and could cost the company significant support, gun-rights groups say.

Larry Pratt, the president of Gun Owners of America, suggests Starbucks may have made a mistake by publicly commenting last year on the gun appreciation movement, when the company tried to stay above the fray by letting local law dictate what customers can and can’t do when it comes to carrying guns around town.

“That may have been what got them in trouble with their left base,” says Mr. Pratt. “But now they’ve probably put themselves in jeopardy with some of their other customers. They really need to be careful, because if they want to poke a finger in the eye of gun owners, there are an awful lot of places besides Starbucks where you can buy coffee.”

Mr. Schultz acknowledged in a USA Today interview that the company is in a difficult position, in part because the brand has become so ubiquitous that Americans have taken cultural ownership of the café. "Starbucks has become a part of the culture of the country," he says. "There's an emotional attachment to Starbucks, so we're treated differently."

To some gun-policy experts, Starbucks, which started as an urban hangout for sophisticates, had become part of a broader strategy, supported by the NRA, to normalize open carry.

Nationally, most states have been busy expanding gun rights over the past decade, though the Sandy Hook shooting sparked several states, including New York, Colorado, and Connecticut, to enact new gun-control laws. A federal gun control package failed this spring.

The attempt by Starbucks to toe the line amid what Schultz calls a highly “emotional” and “polarizing” debate could become a powerful waypoint for deeper cultural shifts in attitudes about carrying guns in public, some gun-policy experts say.

“I think they’re just trying to be uncontroversial and probably making a mis-estimate as to where the controversy lies,” says Edward Leddy, former director of the Center for the Study of Firearms and Public Policy.

“There’s a shift underway where we had a long period in the first half of the 20th century of making gun carry illegal or improper in most people’s minds, and we’re now just moving back in that historical direction,” he says. “The idea is, as people get used to [open carry] they won’t be frightened about it anymore.”

Other commentators suggest that the policy shift says more about Starbucks as a corporation than the broader gun-rights debate.

“This isn't really just about guns,” writes Bruce Horowitz in USA Today. “It's about Starbucks as a soapbox. When Starbucks talks, people listen. Some folks love it. Some folks love to hate it.”

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