Starbucks and Guns: Four Blunt Observations

Photograph by Elaine Thompson/AP Photo

Starbucks was back at the center of the culture wars at the end of last week: Aug. 9 marked the now-annual Starbucks Appreciation Day, when gun owners show up en masse and conspicuously armed at their local coffee shop, in appreciation of the coffee chain’s policy of allowing customers to display guns on their hips in jurisdictions where that’s legal. The event again drew headlines and criticism. The hostilities offer a revealing case study of a business trying to balance the interests of social activists who prefer fighting to finding common ground. Here are four blunt observations sure to please none of the committed combatants:

Gun-rights activists are playing an obnoxious, unnecessary game. They have the right in most states to carry firearms openly. But the now-annual Starbucks Appreciation event is a gratuitous attempt to rile the portion of the populace made uncomfortable by open display of firearms. In a country with sharply divided attitudes toward guns, why purposely provoke one’s neighbors? If one wants to carry a Glock, why not do so modestly, without the intentionally offensive show of force? The vast majority of lawful civilian gun owners handle their weapons carefully. The ones who show up at armed rallies at Starbucks are sending an unsavory signal of intimidation.

Gun-control activists take the bait. In their eagerness to condemn gun ownership broadly—as opposed to the social ills that flow from misuse of firearms—gun-control activists reveal their condescension toward a part of American culture that is here to stay. In a press release condemning the coffee chain, the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence wrote: “It is not up to public officials to provide for the safety of Starbucks’ customers and employees. That is [the company's] responsibility as a private business and theirs alone.” Huh? It is not up to the local police to protect people as they come and go from Starbucks? That makes no sense whatsoever. Starbucks, the coalition adds, is “tainting their brand and exposing their customers and employees to unnecessary risks.” If Starbucks’ policy bothers you, fine—go to Peet’s or another coffee shop that does ban openly carried firearms. But there’s absolutely no evidence that law-abiding citizens bearing arms at Starbucks has led to crime or injury.

Starbucks is trying to do the right thing. “Our longstanding approach to the open-carry debate has been to comply with local laws and statutes in the communities we serve,” a company spokesman told the New York Times. What a radical philosophy! “We continue,” the spokesman added, “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.” Another outlandish idea. Maybe gun foes should try to change the law, rather than attack a company that follows existing law.

The Newtown compromise made sense. In the Connecticut town that was the site of the December 2012 elementary school massacre, some residents were so upset by the prospect of a pro-gun rally at Starbucks that the company closed the Newtown store early on the afternoon of Aug. 9. Just because it has a (reasonable) national policy doesn’t mean that a well-run company should ignore special local concerns and adjust accordingly. Once again, bravo, Starbucks. A company that sells cappuccino doesn’t bear responsibility for resolving an ideological clash as fierce as the one over gun ownership.

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