Are you safer in Starbucks with guns carried in the open?

Depending on your view on guns, you may feel either a whole lot safer or less safe ordering a coffee at Starbucks.

That's because the coffee chain has a policy allowing "open carry" of guns in its stores in states where holstered handguns can legally be carried in public. Openly carrying handguns is legal in 43 states, including those where concealed firearms are banned.

Carrying a gun openly in public, while legal, can prompt a 911 call from a nervous coffee customer, as seen in this video:

Open carry groups have used Starbucks to promote their cause, and Starbucks has decided to allow them in its stores. Starbucks is complying with local laws in all of the communities it serves, a company spokesman wrote in an e-mail to WalletPop.

"Where these laws don't exist, we comply with laws that prohibit the open carrying of weapons. The political, policy and legal debates around these issues belong in the legislature and courts, not in our stores," he said.

Whether you feel safe or not with someone legally carrying a handgun into a Starbucks probably depends on your view of handguns. Starbucks didn't get back to me on whether the open carry movement is hurting its business, but I found plenty of people on both sides of the issue. Some say they're shopping there more because they support open-carry laws while others have stopped going to Starbucks because they oppose the policy.

Some chains, such as California Pizza Kitchen, Buckhorn Grill and Peet's Coffee & Tea, have banned handguns in their stores, as laws allow private property owners to do.

"If everybody knew about this policy (at Starbucks) it would probably cause fewer people to go into a Starbucks," said Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, in a telephone interview with WalletPop.

The Brady Campaign isn't asking people to boycott Starbucks over the issue, but to sign an online petition or send a letter to their local Starbucks asking it to change the policy. Starbucks has a policy of prohibiting its employees from bringing a weapon into work.

One new customer at Starbucks is Tom Gresham, who has a nationally syndicated radio talk show about firearms. Gresham, who doesn't carry an open gun, said he wasn't a Starbucks customer before the open carry debate, but now goes there often.

Seeing someone with a holstered gun shouldn't make anyone feel safer inside a Starbucks, but it shouldn't make them feel afraid, he said. Gun owners are taught to only to use a gun when protecting themselves and to not come to the aid of anyone else, he said.

"The person who has the gun is more safe, but nobody else is more safe," Gresham said in a phone interview.

If a gun is in plain view, then you can safely assume the owner is obeying the law, he said. "Every day you walk past people wearing guns and you don't know it," he said.

Hamm, of the Brady Campaign, said it can't be presumed that someone carrying a gun openly and legally isn't going to get annoyed with someone in a store and shoot them, or would accidentally fire it. "Guns go off," he said.

"We don't have a resume test for who gets to carry their gun out in the open into a Starbucks," Hamm said.

Karen Arntzen, an advocacy coordinator in the Bay Area for the California chapter of the Brady Campaign, said in a phone interview that she was a "devoted customer" at Starbucks, buying five or six $3.50 mocha grandes a week, but now is a regular at Peet's. She's amazed at Starbucks' decision, which surely is driving customers away.

"I think it's absolutely mind boggling that they're just putting their head in the sand and think this problem will go away," Arntzen said.

While supporting the right to bear arms, Tennessee resident Genma Stringer Holmes said in an e-mail that she has stopped going to Starbucks because she wants to sip coffee without staring at a gun and feeling intimidated. She estimates she has saved a lot of money. "Who knew the benefits of being frightened to go to Starbucks?" she wrote.

Stalking victim Angela Daffron wrote in an e-mail that she carries a gun with her always, making her feel safe. She plans to continue going to Starbucks. "The right to carry does not stop me from entering a public place," Daffron said.

Among the many responses I got on this issue, one I thought was most interesting was from the Starbucks spokesman, who didn't give his full name, who said that having a policy different than local laws could lead to its employees getting shot by an upset customer.

"We have examined this issue through the lens of partner (employee) and customer safety," he wrote in an e-mail. "Were we to adopt a policy different from local laws allowing open carry, we would be forced to require our partners to ask law abiding customers to leave our stores, putting our partners in an unfair and potentially unsafe position."

I can see that. Refusing service to someone without shoes or a shirt on is one thing, but telling someone with a gun that you can't sell them coffee would be a lot more difficult.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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