Starbucks treads lightly on gun issue in its coffee shops

September 18, 2013
(Ed Levine) (Ed Levine)

What do you do when your company becomes an unwitting player in the gun-control debate?

That's a question Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has had to wrestle with in recent months as his cafes have found themselves the home of protests for both pro-gun and anti-gun activists. Gun rights advocates, much to Starbucks' dismay, have been hosting "Starbucks Appreciation Days" at the coffee chain's cafes after Starbucks yielded to local laws in states that have open-carry laws. Gun-control proponents, meanwhile, have been urging the company to ban guns in its stores, as companies such as Peets Coffee & Tea and Whole Foods have reportedly done.

Schultz's solution was not to ban guns from the stores outright or stick with the we-defer-to-local-laws position, either. Rather, he's written an open letter that requests customers leave their guns at home--while not forbidding them outright. "We want to give responsible gun owners the chance to respect our request," Schultz writes, and "enforcing a ban would potentially require our partners to confront armed customers," something he says he is not comfortable asking employees to do.

Is that a half measure or the right call in a sensitive public debate?

Some might think Schultz--the CEO of a company that ties its reputation to pleasing customers--is trying to have it both ways, appeasing those who don't want guns in the same place they buy their frappuccinos while not angering gun-rights advocates with a prohibition.

But I don't think that's what's going on. Schultz says explicitly in the letter that "we know we cannot satisfy everyone," and it's clear from reading the comments under Schultz's letter that gun-rights advocates aren't happy with the news. And there are bound to be gun-control advocates who don't think he's gone far enough.

In addition, Schultz is not a CEO who has shied away from joining the political discussion or even taking controversial stances on social issues in the past. The company endorsed a Washington state bill to legalize gay marriage, for instance, a move that prompted a conservative boycott of its stores and led Schultz to vigorously defend the company's commitment to diversity in a shareholder meeting. He recently called the Affordable Care Act "a good thing for the country" and said Starbucks would not cut worker benefits in response to it.

Rather, Schultz's respectful request seems like a common-sense approach--for now at least--to deal with a situation that has few comparisons. Most CEOs who have wrestled with the to-ban-or-not-to-ban question haven't done so in the aftermath of gun-rights advocates holding events in their stores.

Moreover, Starbucks has become more than just a place people buy coffee. It has long been a cultural lightning rod, a brand imbued with social significance and lifestyle choices. As a result, Schultz is right to be cautious about the precarious position he could put his employees in were he to institute a complete ban. Only time will tell how well it will work.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxJWPmpIId0

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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