Starbucks and Guns: Open Danger, Concealed Danger


By Dennis Henigan

As thousands of concerned citizens continue to sign the Brady Campaign’s petition calling on Starbucks to change its policy allowing customers with guns into its stores (as of this writing, up to 33,000 and counting), there have been two particularly revealing responses to the controversy: one from Starbucks and the other from leading “gun rights” supporters.

Starbucks became embroiled in the gun controversy when it responded to gatherings of “gun rights” activists in its stores, carrying highly visible guns strapped to their hips, by refusing to adopt a “no guns” policy, as had California Pizza Kitchen and other similarly targeted retail chains. Starbucks recently issued a statement defending its policy by citing concern for the safety of its employees. To prohibit the open carry of guns in its stores, says Starbucks, “we would be forced to require our partners [employees] to ask law abiding customers to leave our stores, putting our partners in an unfair and potentially unsafe position.”

Of course, that raises this question: Why would it be “potentially unsafe” to ask “law abiding customers” to leave because they are violating company policy? Starbucks seems to be saying that, if its employees asked the gun-toters to leave, some of these “law abiding customers” would respond by creating a threat to employee safety. Is this not an admission by Starbucks that it currently is allowing armed and potentially dangerous people into its stores? Plus, it is surely self-contradictory to label the gun-toters “law abiding customers” while, in the same sentence, suggesting that, if asked to leave, some of these same customers would resist the request, thereby violating trespass laws? These “law abiding customers” don’t sound very law abiding to me.

Ironically, Starbucks’ management seems to share the safety concerns of its many customers who feel threatened by the well-armed people who now have a home in the company’s coffee houses. But the company has concluded that it must tolerate armed and potentially dangerous people in its stores because it would be more dangerous to ask them to leave. Does Starbucks really believe there is no way it can maintain a “no guns” policy without endangering its baristas?

I suggest that it take a page from its competitor, Peet’s Coffee & Tea. When Peet’s also was confronted with the prospect of meetings of the “open carry” crowd in its stores, it immediately announced a “no guns” policy, said it would post signs to that effect in its stores, and added that “in the event a customer enters the store displaying a firearm and is not a uniformed law enforcement officer, we have instructed our store management teams to immediately call their local police department for assistance.” Peet’s figured out a way to protect the comfort and safety of its customers without endangering its employees; that is, by relying on law enforcement. Why can’t Starbucks do the same?

The other revealing reaction – from leaders of the “gun rights” movement – is to suggest that the “open carry” people may be hurting the gun rights cause. For example, Bob Barr, my erstwhile debate opponent when he was in Congress, recently suggested that “firearms advocates might be better advised not to press the issue publicly by pointedly visiting Starbucks establishments with firearms openly displayed. Sometimes quiet advocacy speaks louder than waving a red flag in someone’s face.” Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation (generally considered more extreme than the NRA) told The New York Times, “I’m all for open-carry laws. But I don’t think flaunting it is very productive for our cause. It just scares people.”

Both Barr and Gottlieb are strong proponents of the “more guns, less crime” ideology – the idea that the more guns there are in homes, and in public places, the safer those places will be because criminals will be deterred from attacking when armed, law abiding citizens are present to resist. It is, therefore, surprising for them to take a dim view of the open carrying of guns. According to their “more guns, less crime” logic, locations where open carry occurs should be the safest of all, because criminals will have no doubt that their attacks likely will be met by armed resistance. At the very least, the Barr/Gottlieb comments concede that other Starbucks customers do not share their confidence in the public safety benefits of open carry. Instead, as Gottlieb says, open carry “just scares people.”

Implicitly, Barr and Gottlieb are advising gun owners who want to carry guns in public to keep them concealed from view; that is, make sure the danger is hidden. Perhaps this exposes their real concern about the open carry movement – that it eventually will cause a surge in public concern about the far more prevalent concealed carrying of guns made possible by the gun lobby-supported “shall-issue” laws passed in most states during the last two decades making it far easier to obtain licenses to carry concealed weapons. They also likely fear that open carry may intensify public opposition to recent efforts to gradually expand the locations in which concealed carry may occur –such as parks, bars, college campuses, even airports. After all, it’s not the “openness” of open carry that scares people – it’s the presence of the guns themselves and the inherent danger they entail. The only reason there is not an equivalent reaction to concealed carry is that the danger is, by definition, hidden from view.

The evidence is overwhelming that the “shall-issue” concealed carry laws have been a disaster for public safety. They have allowed dangerous people to obtain concealed carry licenses, those people have committed grievous crimes, and the scholarly research shows that the laws generally have been “associated with uniform increases in crime.” But the danger becomes evident to the public only episodically – when someone with a concealed carry license shoots someone accidentally or commits a violent act, such as the six multiple shootings committed by concealed carry licensees in 2009 alone. What if concealed carry licensees had to reveal they were packing whenever they entered Starbucks or other public places? The debate over guns in public would be far different.

“Gun rights” advocates like Barr and Gottlieb have good reason to fear that their “guns anywhere” agenda would be threatened if the open carry movement starts causing the public to understand the true danger of guns in public – the open danger, and the concealed danger as well.


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