Commentary

Starbucks Bans Guns But Won't Confront Customers

“Tired of being thrust onto the front lines of the nation’s debate over guns,” as the New York Times’ Stephanie Strom writes in her lede, Starbucks is facing attack from all sides after CEO Howard Schultz issued a “respectful request” yesterday that guns not be carried into its company-owned stores in the U.S -- although they are not formally banned -– unless they are worn by law enforcement officers.

Full-page ads announcing the change appear in today’s editions of USA Today, The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. The policy is, writes the Los Angeles Times’ Rene Lynch, “in effect, a soft ban as it will not be enforced.” But the position “immediately began kicking up controversy.”

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Posting sample tweets on both sides of the issue, Adweek’s Christopher Heine reported that “the proclamation set the social media world abuzz this morning, inspiring both praise and criticism on Twitter in particular.”

“The new policy underscores the delicate balance retailers are trying to strike as they face pressure from gun control and gun rights advocates, a Financial Times email teaser for the story points out. “Pro-gun activists have held ‘Starbucks Appreciation Days’ at local stores,” its Shannon Bond reports, making the chain “a reluctant hero of gun rights advocates.” 

But, Schultz asserts in the open letter, “some anti-gun activists have also played a role in ratcheting up the rhetoric and friction, including soliciting and confronting our customers and partners.” 

ABC News’ Kevin Dolak points to an editorial on Rare by NRANews radio host Cam Edwards in which he claims Starbucks is "asking gun owners to go quietly back into the closet.” And while he appreciates “the attempt to placate both sides,” Edwards says he’ll “take my business to those stores who truly don’t care about my status as a gun owner but who see me as a valued customer.”

Schultz says that the company’s longstanding approach to “open carry” has been to abide by local laws. “We have chosen this approach because we believe our store partners should not be put in the uncomfortable position of requiring customers to disarm or leave our stores. We believe that gun policy should be addressed by government and law enforcement -- not by Starbucks and our store partners.”

The announcement had nothing to do with the shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., this week, or with any other rampage in particular, according to Schultz. It did have a lot to do with the company taking control of its message, apparently, which is that “we know we cannot satisfy everyone.”

“For those who oppose ‘open carry,’ we believe the legislative and policy-making process is the proper arena for this debate, not our stores,” he writes. “For those who champion ‘open carry,’ please respect that Starbucks stores are places where everyone should feel relaxed and comfortable.”

In story written by Julie Jargon, Schultz tells the Wall Street Journal that the issue became “much more acute this summer with groups on both sides using Starbucks as a staging ground for their own positioning, and that resulted in the marketplace mischaracterizing us as being on one side of the issue or the other.”

“At this point we'll sit and monitor the situation,” Schultz tellsUSA Today’s Bruce Horovitz. “‘We're hoping that most people will honor the request.’ But even if gun-carrying customers don't honor the request, says Schultz, ‘We'll serve them with a smile and not confront them.’” 

Starbucks’ “no confrontation” approach toward visitors apparently extends to customers’ right to bear away newspapers as well.

A retired friend who frequents a neighborhood Starbucks for a cup or three of black coffee and a perusal of the newspapers recently told me that another patron regularly walks out with one of the establishment’s copies of the New York Times tucked under his arm. After observing this for a while, and noting that the man did little to hide what he was doing, my friend asked a manager why nothing was done to stop the thief. He was told that in the interest of everybody’s safety, it’s not Starbuck’s policy to confront its “customers,” even if they were blatantly stealing.

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