Why Starbucks Has to Step In on Guns

Starbucks’ firearms decision is the first step to setting boundaries for America’s gun-loving culture. Who will be next?

In this July 11, 2013 photo, a man drinks a Starbucks coffee in New York.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
Sept. 19, 2013, 11:46 a.m.

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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