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Starbucks to Customers: Please Leave Your Guns at Home

A man wearing a pistol on Aug. 9 outside a Starbucks outlet in Newtown, Conn.

Photograph by Lisa Wiltse/The New York Times via Redux

A man wearing a pistol on Aug. 9 outside a Starbucks outlet in Newtown, Conn.

For three years, Starbucks (SBUX) has felt the ardent love of gun-rights activists as the coffee chain tolerated customers who openly packed heat. No more.

Starbucks Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz tells Bloomberg Businessweek that firearms and cappuccino don’t mix. Beginning today, the ubiquitous caffeine bars “respectfully request” that gun owners leave their weapons in their cars or at home, Schultz says. “We’re not pro-gun or anti-gun,” he explains. The chain simply wants no part of the escalating debate over the Second Amendment and the place of firearms in American society.

The sure-to-be controversial announcement comes as some Democrats in Congress vow to renew their campaign for tougher gun-control laws in the wake of the Sept. 16 shooting massacre at the Washington Navy Yard.

In an open letter released today, Schultz wrote:

“Pro-gun activists have used our stores as a political stage for media events misleadingly called ‘Starbucks Appreciation Days’ that disingenuously portray Starbucks as a champion of ‘open carry.’ … To be clear: we do not want these events in our stores. Some anti-gun activists have also played a role in ratcheting up the rhetoric and friction, including soliciting and confronting our customers and partners. For these reasons, today we are respectfully requesting that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas—even in states where ‘open carry’ is permitted—unless they are identified law enforcement personnel.”

Since 2010, gun owners in California and other states have shown up en masse and conspicuously armed for Starbucks Appreciation Days meant to promote the open carrying of firearms in the majority of states where the practice is legal. Acrimony over the guns-and-coffee demonstrations peaked in August in Newtown, the Connecticut community that was the site of the December 2012 elementary school massacre. Some residents of the town were so upset by the prospect of a pro-gun rally that the Seattle-based coffee company closed its Newtown store early on the afternoon of Aug. 9.

Under assault from gun-control proponents last month, the chain defended its previous policy. “Our longstanding approach to the open-carry debate has been to comply with local laws and statutes in the communities we serve,” a spokesman said at the time. “We continue to encourage customers and advocacy groups from all sides of the debate to share their input with their elected officials, who make the open-carry laws that our company follows.”

After internal discussions led by Schultz and involving the company’s board of directors, Starbucks has shifted its stance. The new policy took shape over a period of months, he said, and Wednesday’s announcement isn’t related to the Washington Navy Yard shootings.

Starbucks will not ban firearms outright. “That would put employees in a very uncomfortable position of confronting somebody with a gun,” Schultz said. “Recently, however, we’ve seen the ‘open carry’ debate become increasingly uncivil, and in some cases even threatening,” he wrote in his letter. “We want to give responsible gun owners a chance to respect our request,” he wrote. “The presence of a weapon in our stores is unsettling and upsetting for many of our customers.”

Now the question is whether some of the same gun owners who celebrated Starbucks’s previous hospitality will make the chain a target of hostile protests. “I empathize with both sides,” Schultz said. “Starbucks is not a policy maker.” He declined to say whether he personally owns a firearm, adding: “I don’t think it’s relevant.”

Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador.

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