WASHINGTON -- The last thing Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wanted to be was a hero to gun owners; the last thing he wanted to do was make a statement about guns of any kind.
But when you run a company with 12,000 U.S. coffee shops that serve as a comfy "third place" between home and work, you can be pulled into a political battle whether you want to be or not.
For years, Starbucks maintained what it viewed as a neutral, above-the-fray position: mute compliance with local and state laws that allow for "open carry" of firearms. The company adhered to this policy even though, in some of these places, restaurants are still allowed to ban firearms on the premises.
"The policy was that we were following the law of the land," Schultz said in an interview Wednesday with The Huffington Post. "And in 40 states, as a result of open-carry laws, you can bring a gun into a public space."
But Starbucks' silence was touted as a shout-out by gun rights advocates, who earlier this year began staging "Starbucks Appreciation Days" to praise the company and proclaim their own freedom to sip macchiatos while packing heat.
Northern Virginians hosted a "Gun Owners Support Starbucks Day" this past February. One patron designed a "I Love Guns & Coffee" web page and offered "Guns & Coffee" T-shirts, mugs and tire covers.
Which, of course, prompted a response. In early July, a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America started a campaign to pressure Starbucks to issue an outright ban on guns in its stores.
The brewing controversy reached the Starbucks board this summer, and this week Schultz announced a new policy: Henceforth Starbucks would respectfully ask that patrons not bring guns into its stores or into the seating areas adjacent to them.
"Everyone is welcome in our stores, but weapons are not," is the official line. This is not a flat-out ban, as some restaurants and coffee chains are trying to impose, but a plea for understanding and restraint.
"The episodes of the last few months -- things like the 'Starbucks Appreciation Days' and then the advocates on the other side -- led people to misrepresent and mischaracterize us," said Schultz.
"We had to do something about that mischaracterization and also recognize that some of our customers might be uncomfortable or jarred by open carry and the confusion and ambiguity surrounding it."
Schultz noted, "Most people in the country don't know what open carry is, and some can be alarmed. We are a 'third place' in America, and some customers, and especially children, might be affected by it."
But Starbucks decided not to ban guns, Schultz said, "because we don't want our people in the very uncomfortable position of having to confront someone or try to enforce a policy against someone holding a weapon."
It's also true that, had Starbucks attempted a complete ban, it might have found itself facing lawsuits in jurisdictions where restaurant exemptions are murky.
"We want to be respectful of the Second Amendment, and I think that we are articulating a policy that is not anti-gun," said Schultz, adding that if a customer refuses to follow the policy, no consequences will ensue.
"We are going to serve them and always will. We will not ask them to leave," he said. "We hope that, over time, people would come to honor and respect the request."
Schultz said that he hadn't discussed the issue with any advocates on either side. "We tried to balance the issue on both sides when we were thrust into a position we were not prepared for." He also said that Monday's shooting at the Washington Navy Yard had nothing to do with the timing of the announcement.
The new policy applies immediately to the 7,000 stores the company owns outright.
Another 5,000 are owned and operated by licensees, who can make their own rules. Some of them are major players such as Target and Safeway. Calls to both companies were not immediately returned.
Schultz is no stranger to public debate and is known for his willingness to take on political crusades. Last December, he called on elected leaders to come together to fix the national debt. He has also publicly supported Washington state legislation to ensure marriage equality.
As for Starbucks, it was one of the first retailers to offer health care benefits to part-time employees working at least 20 hours per week. It teamed up with the Opportunity Finance Network to help create and retain jobs by launching the "Create Jobs for USA" campaign.
But Schultz declined to say whether he owned a gun himself. "I'm not going to answer that," he said. "It's not about me personally. We are not pro- or anti-gun. We are pro Starbucks and pro our consumers."
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