Starbucks sticks to its guns

When most Americans step into a Starbucks, they do not expect a Wild West experience – frothing cups sent skidding down the counter, horses tied up on the street or pistols slung in the holsters of fellow latte-sipping patrons. But when it comes to gun barrels and biscotti, it turns out they would be wrong. They do go together.

The coffee-purveying giant that is more normally associated with liberal enlightenment and urban sophistication not only has a policy that allows people to come into its US shops bearing unconcealed (but unloaded) weapons, but last week found itself actually defending its barista-and-bullets stance, albeit a little reluctantly.

Embarrassment began brewing for Starbucks earlier this year when gun-ownership advocates began gathering at eateries and coffee shops in California and some other western states with weapons conspicuously on hips to highlight the legality of openly wearing weapons, and to press for even fewer restrictions. Two chains targeted for the events, California Pizza Kitchen and Peet's Coffee and Tea, responded by banning all guns in their locales.

Retail companies are indeed free to ask customers not to pack on their premises. Starbucks, however, decided to maintain the policy it has always had – not to bar weapons in shops located in communities where so-called "open carry" laws are on the books. Consistent? Yes. Popular? Not with gun-control groups, notably the nationwide Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, whose members are as angry as scorpions in a cookie jar.

Last week, protesters from both sides descended on Starbucks shops in the chain's home town of Seattle, and in other cities. That the company finds itself at the centre of the wider national gun-ownership debate is not making it happy. "Advocacy groups from both sides of this issue have chosen to use Starbucks as a way to draw attention to their positions," it said in a statement. "As the public debate continues, we are asking all interested parties to refrain from putting Starbucks or our partners [employees] into the middle of this divisive issue ... The political, policy and legal debates around these issues belong in the legislatures and courts, not in our stores."

Contrary to the hopes and expectations of Obama supporters, the tide in that debate has seemed to turn against gun-control advocates. Twenty-four states, mostly in the west and south of the US, have passed laws to loosen gun restrictions in the past two years. A federal law signed by President Barack Obama allowing visitors to national parks to openly wear guns has just gone into effect, and the US Supreme Court may shortly overturn Chicago's hand-gun ban.

All that may be why the gun-control lobby has seized so fiercely on the Starbucks furore to draw a line in the coffee grounds. "The practice of packing guns in places like Starbucks is intimidating and could be potentially dangerous to our families and communities – and it must be stopped," the Brady group said in a statement. A petition posted on its website to make Starbucks change its mind about guns had attracted 30,000 signatures by the week's end. "There are gun owners in this country that want to force guns into every nook and cranny of our society," argued Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign. "They want to normalise the concept of guns being everywhere." Almost all US states have some kind of open-carry legislation on their books.

Encouraging Starbucks to stick by its guns, as it were, are not only the National Rifle Association but also the group Open Carry that helped instigate the pistol-packing public gatherings in the first place. "The issue is you have the right to bear arms," says Mike Stollenwerk of Open Carry. "And a gun is like insurance." Let's hope the only shots in Starbucks remain the ones in the espressos.

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