The only way to reduce gun violence in a country that won't give up its guns is to set cultural boundaries on what's acceptable and what's not. And some members of corporate America have realized it's partly up to them to do that.
Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz this week "respectfully" asked customers not to bring guns into his establishments. The request is the latest, and perhaps highest-profile, example of firearm restrictions put in place by corporate entities for their customers. Starbucks didn't outright ban weapons on its premises, but other companies like Whole Foods and Peet's Coffee and Tea have banned them.
Even in open-carry states, such as Arizona, retailers routinely ask that weapons remain off their premises. In Phoenix, for example, it is not uncommon to see signs on restaurants stating that firearms are not permitted inside.
Gun-control advocates agree that changing the country's cultural view of guns is an important, and often overlooked, factor in curbing gun violence. Legal changes alone, like expanded background checks, won't stop gun-related suicides or accidents.
"You have to change social norms," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "There's not enough focus on this big picture. It doesn't tend to drive enough of the conversation historically."
Corporate America, particularly the retail sector, has a lot of sway in terms of social norms. And their actions have the distinct advantage of being removed, at least a little bit, from the polarized political debate on gun control.
Think about designated smoking areas or dress codes at restaurants. It's a lot easier for a manager of a Starbucks to tell a latte drinker that it's not cool to bring his gun in with him than it is for Congress or state Legislatures to outlaw them at all coffee shops.
The advantage of corporate policies on firearms is that they don't get in the way of gun owners' legal rights to possess their weapons, and that's important for keeping the gun conversation more or less open. Gun owners are on guard for any hint that their rights might be curtailed by the government, and "gun owners drive this debate," said Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association.
Gun-control advocates are trying to tone down the confrontational talk about the issue, says Gross. "We're acknowledging the guns that are already out there, reaffirming our respect for the reason why those people own guns."
Gross says cultural change comes from education about gun safety, understanding the risks and the benefits. Some 20,000 gun deaths a year are suicides with legally purchased guns. Others are accidents or crimes of passion. "There, the solution is not policy. There the solution is public health and safety campaigns. There are risks associated with bringing a gun into your home and allowing unsafe access to it.... It's like 'Friends don't let friends drive drunk,' " he said.
As Congress is stalled on gun legislation, actions like Starbucks' open letter to its customers will become critical in the debate over gun policy. Otherwise, the national conversation about guns will surface only when something dramatic happens, such as the mass shooting at Washington's Navy Yard.
Then, as the news cycle dwindles down, the topic will sink back into obscurity. But Starbucks will still respectfully ask you to leave your gun outside.
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