Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz tired of blending fury with frappuccinos. Over the last three years, the company has become an unwitting proxy in the gun-rights debate. And in the American West, firearms spur an over-caffeinated passion better left outside the café door.
“Few topics in America generate a more polarized and emotional debate than guns,” Schultz understates in a Sept. 17 open letter. “In recent months, Starbucks stores and our partners (employees) who work in our stores have been thrust unwillingly into the middle of this debate. That’s why I am writing today with a respectful request that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas.”
The fuss traces to 2010 when Starbucks underlined its policy of aligning with local “open carry” laws. There is a crystalline logic to the policy, that 20-year old baristas shouldn’t be compelled to ask, “Would you like soy milk with that, and could you please take your semi-automatic back to your car?” The open-carry community was so delighted that they sponsored appreciation days encouraging supporters to burnish their guns at the local Starbucks. Supporters got caught up — like absolutists of all persuasions — in the effluence of their own exuberance.
“Pro-gun activists have used our stores as a political stage for media events misleadingly called ‘Starbucks Appreciation Days’ that disingenuously portray Starbucks as a champion of ‘open carry’” Schultz writes. “To be clear: We do not want these events in our stores.” The fury extends to gun-control advocates. “Some anti-gun activists have also played a role in ratcheting up the rhetoric and friction, including soliciting and confronting our customers and partners.”
Starbucks is aping Switzerland, a deliberate neutrality that doesn’t signal an outright “open carry” ban. Dressed in diplomatic language, the implicit message is, “please don’t spook our customers.”
There is a lesson. NRA honchos know from focus groups exactly what gun-control leaders know: Soccer moms support the Second Amendment, just as soccer moms feel uncomfortable with a semi-automatic dangling from the guy behind them in line.
Customer-centric markets telegraph public sentiment. And democratic capitalism, curious and amoral, is usually far ahead of the political curve. Analysts at Starbucks, Amazon and Microsoft have a better sense of which way the wind blows than Joe politician. That’s why Schultz’s open letter matters. Citizens have the right to carry guns consistent with the laws of their state, but when they scare the bejeebers out of customers, they hurt the bottom line.
Here is the maxim for sensible gun rights and gun control activists alike: Absolutists who overreach fail absolutely.