The New Front In The Gun Control War Is Your Local Shopping Mall

12/05/2013 07:09 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014
  • Ben Hallman Senior Editor for Projects & Investigations, The Huffington Post

One evening this past August, an employee at a Staples office supply store in a Wake Forest, N.C., strip mall heard a bang, and then a woman's cry for help.

The worker and another shopper rounded a corner to discover Danielle Hayes, 29, bleeding from her hand. The pistol she kept in her purse had accidentally discharged as she was trying to keep it away from her 2-year-old son, Hayes said.

Although police initially said they would charge Hayes for failing to secure a firearm from a minor, a misdemeanor under state law, they didn't bring charges, and the story disappeared from local news outlets.

But 600 miles away in Indianapolis, a newly minted gun-control activist took note. Shannon Watts, founder of the organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, saw the Staples shooting as an opportunity to rally supporters to a new fight.

Her goal: pressuring businesses, especially national chains, to ban guns. "Businesses have to make a choice," Watts said in a recent interview. "They can side with the gun lobby, or they can choose to protect their customers."

Welcome to the newest front in the battle over the role of guns in American life. In recent months, gun-control advocates and pro-gun forces have squared off in an increasingly heated contest over the right to carry firearms into stores and restaurants, drawing businesses into a conflict that they have diligently tried to avoid.

For leaders on both sides, the fight offers the opportunity to keep supporters energized after a federal gun-control bill was effectively mothballed.

Pro-gun forces say they have the advantage. For years, they've lobbied efforts to roll back local and state gun restrictions. Thanks to their efforts, it's now easier than ever before to legally carry a firearm, both openly and concealed, in many public places.

North Carolina, for example, just lifted prohibitions against carrying concealed weapons inside bars and restaurants, a move that was backed by the legislative arm of the National Rifle Association.

In targeting businesses directly, Moms Demand Action is trying to circumvent the legislative process, which with a few exceptions rarely yields positive results for gun-control activists. By Watts's account, the group has already had a major win: Starbucks in September asked its customers to stop carrying firearms into the coffee chain's 10,000 stores.

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Five women from the gun-control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America pose with the manager of a Staples in Arlington, Va., in mid-November. The women claim the manager agreed to ban firearms from his store. Staples later refuted this account.

After that victory, Watts decided to turn up the pressure on Staples. The company fit the right profile: a recent shooting by an irresponsible gun owner to serve as a catalyst, stores in nearly every state and a business model that is dependent on moms. School supply sales account for a significant portion of Staples' revenues.

Most businesses view the prospect of being dragged into the contentious fight on guns -- and of being told they must choose sides -- with something like horror.

"It is a classic lose-lose proposition from a perception point of view," said Dorothy Crenshaw, who runs a public relations agency in Manhattan that has worked with companies like Verizon Wireless and Sharp. "Retailers and restaurateurs want to avoid the issue. They are so afraid of special-interest groups, so afraid of the reaction of one side or another, even if it is a fringe group."

Watts said she has "no sympathy" for businesses that don't "do the right thing." She said companies already make decisions about what they do and do not allow in the name of public safety -- no smoking, for example -- and as such should have no issue with also banning guns.

Advocates on both sides claim they have the economic clout to get what they want. In less than a year, Moms Demand Action has grown to include 120,000 members, with chapters in every state, Watts said. The organization, which models itself after Mothers Against Drunk Driving, says its members will boycott businesses that don't choose its side.

"Moms make 80 percent of spending decisions" for families, Watts said, citing a disputed figure often used by marketing groups.

Pro-gun groups say their members are better organized and far more numerous. So-called open-carry enthusiasts routinely roam around retail stores with their rifles or handguns visibly displayed, and then write about the experience in online forums.

A band of 40 or so of these activists held a recent protest in a Dallas parking lot, outside a restaurant where several Moms Demand Action supporters had gathered. The gun group says it was "protecting" the women as they exercised their First Amendment rights; the women say the action amounted to intimidation and bullying.

In North Carolina, the forces are squaring off in something like hand-to-hand combat. Under the new state law that went into effect Oct. 1., bars and restaurants can ban customers from carrying weapons inside, but doing so means posting a notice -- a move that many view as a political act. Gun control groups including Moms Demand Action have gone door-to-door in recent weeks asking businesses to hang such signs.

Paul Vallone, head of the pro-gun group Grass Roots North Carolina, said his organization has 200,000 supporters in his state alone, and that he intends to warn them about any business that refuses to permit armed customers from coming inside.

"They will lose," Valone said of gun opponents. "We are drawing on hundreds of thousands of supporters. They are drawing on a dozen moms walking around handing out signs."

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A diner at Sir Edmond Halley's a pub in Charlotte, N.C., thanks the owner for hanging a "no guns allowed" sign.

At the ground level, its not clear that either side wields as much influence as it claims.

In interviews, a half dozen North Carolina restaurant and bar owners who have posted "no guns" signs at their establishments said they made the decision on practical grounds -- not because they were pressured to do so.

"It is a stupid idea to mix guns and alcohol," said Svend Deal, the owner of Sir Edmond Halley's, a pub in Charlotte. Even if someone carrying a gun in the bar isn't drinking -- a requirement under the law -- "other people might be using poor judgment," he said.

"The last thing I want is an altercation that involves my bartender, some drunk people and someone with a gun, all in close quarters," Deal said.

Kate Carroll and her husband recently put up two "no firearms allowed" signs at their restaurant, the Radius Pizzeria & Pub in Hillsborough, N.C., one on the front door and one in the garden.

"It is a sad state of affairs that it has come to this, but we have to protect ourselves," Carroll said. "If someone kills someone we can be sued."

Carroll said customers have voiced different opinions about the signs -- some have asked, "What have you got against guns?" -- but none has threatened to stop eating there.

Deal said he's also heard a few complaints, mostly in the form of emails that arrived after a story ran on a local television station about the gun law and the sign at Sir Edmond Halley's.

"A couple of whack-jobs wrote to say that 'me and my 1,000 friends won't come in,'" he said. Deal's response: "Good and please don't."

Others, though, appear to have succumbed to pressure to stay firearm-friendly. In November, the manager of a Charlotte Brixx Wood Fired Pizza -- a regional pizza and craft beer restaurant chain -- posted a "no guns" sign on the door, only to pull it down a few days later.

The company declined to discuss the decision to remove the sign, but pro-gun activists who had complained took credit for the about-face.

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Members of Come and Take It, a group that advocates for fewer restrictions on where gun owners can openly display their weapons, pose outside a shopping center in Keller, Texas, on Dec. 1.

In mid-November, while in Washington, D.C., for a conference, Watts and a few volunteers decided to drop in on the Staples store in Arlington, Va., just across the Potomac River.

They chose the store because of its location. Under Virginia law, gun owners may openly carry handguns inside retail stores and other businesses, unless the business posts a sign warning that firearms aren't allowed.

In Virginia, as in many other states, "open carrying" is a fashionable pastime among a certain set. In online forums, gun enthusiasts trade stories about traipsing around big chain stores with their firearms proudly displayed.

Gun control advocates decry this practice as unsafe, and frightening. When the Moms Demand Action women approached the manager of the Arlington Staples, he was instantly receptive to their mission, they claim.

"I don't want guns in my store," he said, according to the advocates. He also posed for a photo with the women.

The group posted the photo to its Facebook page, along with a message: "IT'S WORKING," the activists wrote. "He will put up signs saying no guns are allowed in his store!"

The reaction was immediate, and nasty. Pro-gun forces swamped social media -- including Staples' own Facebook page -- with demands that the store recant.

"I'll never set foot in a Staples again," declared one gun-group supporter.

Another commenter who had engaged in an online argument with a supporter of the moms' group suggested that she "go make me a sandwich already."

Gun-group backers also began calling Staples to voice their opposition to any restrictions on their right to carry weapons into stores. Some reported that the company had told them that the Moms Demand Action post was bogus -- that the Staples store in Arlington had not enacted a no-gun policy.

This revelation fueled even more outrage. The creator of a Facebook page called "Hypocrisy and Stupidity of Gun Control Advocates," which has nearly 30,000 followers, called the leaders of the gun control group "lying sacks of shit."

When contacted by The Huffington Post, a customer service representative at the Arlington store said the manager was not available for interviews.

A spokesman at Staples' head office in Framingham, Mass., told HuffPost that the company has "no pinpoint policy" regarding guns in its stores -- at the Arlington location or anywhere else. The spokesman said managers do not have the authority "to make political decisions," such as banning guns. He said the confusion owes to "misinformation" communicated over "social media," but declined to say whether guns are welcome in Staples stores.

Watts said she was blindsided by the company's apparent change in position. She said she was told that decisions about whether to make stores gun-free are up to local managers, and claims the office supply chain is backtracking on its policy in response to hollow threats from gun activists.

As evidence of the chain's inconsistency on the subject, Watts forwarded a recent photo of a Staples in Goodyear, Ariz., outside of Phoenix. A decal on the door pictures a gun with a black line through it and reads "no firearms allowed."

The company did not respond to a request for comment about the sign.

Watts said she's been distressed by the personal nature of some of the attacks on her and her group by pro-gun forces, but that some kind of escalation is ultimately the goal of the Staples campaign. By posting a particular photo to Facebook, her group is counting on a response from pro-gun people -- ideally, a rally

It was just such a planned public display of force at a Starbucks in Newtown, Conn., that prompted the company to ask customers to stop bringing guns inside its stores, according to a spokesman.

The Staples fight hasn't attracted as much press coverage, but the pro-gun groups are paying attention. Over the weekend, members of an open-carry group in Keller, Texas, posed for a photo just outside a strip mall parking lot. A Staples sign is clearly featured in the shot.

"Any time we pick a company, the open-carry people focus on the same company," Watts said. "The reality is that Staples is going to have to make a decision."

One of the organizers of the event, Michelle Southwick, said the inclusion of the sign in the photo is purely coincidental. Groups like Moms Demand Action, she said, are trying to pick a fight.

"We respect all property rights," she said. "It is the opposition that is harassing the stores that support the Second Amendment rights of individuals."

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