Tired of being thrust onto the front lines of the nation’s debate over guns, Starbucks is asking customers to leave firearms behind when they are in its stores and its outdoor seating areas.
The policy change came on the heels of a shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday that left 13 people dead, including the gunman, but Starbucks said its decision was not in response to that or to the shooting spree that killed 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last year.
“I’ve spent a significant amount of personal time on this issue in the last several months, and I’ve seen the emotionally charged nature of this issue and how polarizing it is on both sides,” Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz said in a telephone interview. “Nevertheless, customers in many stores have been jarred and fairly uncomfortable to see guns in our stores, not understanding the issue and feeling that guns should not be part of the Starbucks experience, especially when small kids are around.”
Under the change, baristas and other store employees will not ask customers who come in with guns in holsters to leave or confront them in any way, Schultz said. No signs explaining the policy will be posted in Starbucks stores, either.
“We are going to serve them as we would serve anyone else,” he said. “There are going to be people on both sides who will be disappointed or angry, but we’re making a decision we think is in the best interests of our customers, employees and the company.”
He said store officials would evaluate compliance over time and consider posting signs if necessary.
The majority of company-owned Starbucks stores are in states that allow people to openly carry guns, although restrictions and limitations vary from state to state. The company has had a handful of armed robberies in its stores over the years, as well as two recent incidents where guns carried in women’s purses have accidentally discharged, but little other gun violence in its stores.
In recent months, gun control advocates have pressured Starbucks to ban firearms, while supporters of gun rights have celebrated the company’s decision to defer to local laws. About a month ago, Starbucks shut down a store in Newtown, Conn., early to avoid a demonstration by gun rights advocates. They had planned to stage a “Starbucks Appreciation Day,” bringing their firearms and turning the company into an unwitting supporter of gun rights.
Support for guns runs counter to the Starbucks image. For some customers, part of the brand’s attraction is the company’s support of gay marriage and environmental issues. At least some of Starbucks’ more than $13 billion in annual revenue is derived from people who agree with the company’s views.
But with some 7,000 company-owned stores across the country — in red states and blue — Starbucks is being forced to tread carefully with its special blend of politics and commerce.
Many states allow people to carry licensed guns in some way, but some businesses exercise their right to ban firearms. They can do so because their locations are considered private property. Starbucks isn’t the only company that doesn’t ban guns, but it has become a target for gun control advocates, partly because of its corporate image.
In 2010, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence teamed up with Credo Action, an activist group that uses mobile technology and social media to push change, and attracted more than 40,000 signatures on a petition aimed at changing the company’s policy on guns in its stores that was delivered to Starbucks headquarters in Seattle.
“It sounds like Howard Schultz is making a very good business decision,” said Brian Malte, director of legislation and mobilization at the Brady Campaign. “Lots of families with children, college students and young people are Starbucks customers, and they want to feel safe.”
The company has long followed local laws regarding the ability to carry guns in plain sight. Customers in the 44 states that allow legal gun owners to carry weapons openly have been permitted in its stores there, while those in the six other states — New York, California, South Carolina, Illinois, Florida and Texas — have not, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
“I want to make it very clear that Starbucks is not a policymaker, and as a company, we are not pro- or anti-gun,” Schultz said. “However, there have been a number of episodes over the course of the last few months that have put us in a position to take a big step back and assess the issue of open carry.”
Most other restaurant chains and retailers follow policies similar to the one Starbucks is abandoning, although Peet’s Coffee & Tea, California Pizza Kitchen and Whole Foods ban guns from their stores. Disney also forbids guns in its theme parks, and Costco does not allow its members to carry them openly in its stores.
“While Peet’s Coffee & Tea respects and values all individuals’ rights under the law, like many other private retail establishments, our policy is not to allow customers carrying firearms in our stores or on our outdoor seating premises unless they are uniformed or identified law enforcement officers,” the company said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association said the organization does not have a list of its members’ policies on guns but noted that some states that have open carry laws still prohibit public display of firearms in restaurants.
Phillip Hofmeister, president of gun rights group Michigan Open Carry Inc., said he respects the right of private businesses such as Starbucks to determine their own gun policies. But he noted that the message was confusing.
“They’re trying to make people like myself feel unwelcome, but it’s not an outright ban,” said Hofmeister, who added he has been carrying a gun in public where permitted for the past several years.
Even if there’s no ban, Hofmeister said he won’t patronize a business where he didn’t feel welcome.The Associated Press contributed to this report.