Starbucks Shooting Sparks Health Debate: Smoking Guns vs. Smoking Cigarettes

Despite the recent wounding of a customer and a new campaign by an anti-gun group, Starbucks isn’t giving up on its controversial policy to permit the open carry of guns in its U.S. shops.

It’s a jittery position for the Seattle-based coffee giant. To keep the workplace safe, Starbucks bans its employees from bearing arms. And concerned about customer health, the chain bans smoking outside the entrance to its stores. But it doesn’t ban coffee drinkers packing heat.

“Our long-standing approach to this topic remains unchanged,” spokesperson Zack Hutson said this week.

Last month, after a Florida woman set her purse down on the floor of a Starbucks in St. Petersberg, the jolt caused her .25 caliber handgun to fire accidentally, wounding her companion in the leg. It was similar to a 2011 incident in a Wyoming Starbucks when a .38 went off in a girl’s purse, sending a bullet flying past several customers.

The recent shooting – as well as an incident outside the doorway of a Houston Starbucks last week when a man was shot in the leg – set off a new debate among visitors to Starbucks’ Facebook page. Opponents urged Starbucks to change its policy while supporters thanked the company for backing the 2nd Amendment.

The Florida shooting also stirred Moms Demand Action (for Gun Sense in America) this week to launch a drive against Starbucks. MDA is urging the public to send protest messages and sign a petition it will present to the company urging a rollback of the gun policy.

Founded by Shannon Watts in the wake of the Newtown school shootings last December, the group is focusing on Starbucks’ ban against smoking within 25 feet of its storefronts, and a passage in the company’s conduct manual prohibiting employees from possessing weapons at any company store, plant or property. “Starbucks,” the employee guide adds, “takes its rules regarding workplace health, safety and security very seriously.”

But as the Moms ask in their new campaign, then “Why aren’t they taking the safety and security of our families and children just as seriously?”

Spokesperson Hutson acknowledges the “significant and genuine passion surrounding open carry weapons laws,” but says Starbucks is following a legal strategy. “In communities that permit open carry, we abide by local laws. Where these laws don’t exist, openly carrying weapons in our stores is prohibited.”

Most states, including Washington, allow open carry in some form. Some states limit the right or require permits and others, such as Arkansas and Missouri, are still debating what, exactly, open carry means.

“We are extremely sensitive to the issue of gun violence in our society,” says Hutson in telephone and e-mail responses, “and believe that supporting local laws is the right way for us to ensure a safe environment for both our partners (employees) and customers.”

If customers want Starbucks to change that approach, they’ll apparently have to petition their legislators to rewrite local laws. Says Hutson: “As the public debate around this topic continues, we encourage customers and advocacy groups from both sides to share their input with public officials.”

Peets Coffee & Tea, along with IKEA , Disney and other corporations opted to ban guns at their public retail outlets when presented a petition by the Brady Campaign in 2011. Starbucks balked, and founder Howard Schultz reiterated his earlier position that “I’m not a politician. I run a coffee company and we’re trying to abide by the laws in which we do business.”

Yet he’s said that guns in a coffee shop seem hostile to Starbucks’ convivial corporate goal, creating a marketplace “to inspire and nurture the human spirit.” Last Christmas, Schultz also made a plea for Americans to come together politically, indicating he was moved by a need for change in the wake of the 26 dead at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.

That’s the shooting that also inspired the anti-gun Moms, and the question may be who was more motivated by Newtown. Schultz and company, with all their corporate know-how, seem struck out on a limb with contradictory excuses, while the 100,000-member Moms, citing the Florida wounding, wonder whether Schultz is as concerned about second-hand bullets as he is about second-hand smoke.

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