What would your reaction be if you and your kids walked into the local Starbucks and, while contemplating the choice between a latte and a mocha cappuccino, you noticed several fellow customers had semi-automatic pistols and ammunition magazines hanging from their hips?
This scenario has become more than a flight of imagination. In several communities in California, and elsewhere, it has become reality.
Welcome to the "open carry" movement, an effort by "gun rights" extremists to foist their interpretation of the Second Amendment on the rest of us by openly carrying handguns in public places. While virtually all states have at least some minimal restrictions on the carrying of concealed weapons, few states do anything to regulate the "open carry" of firearms.
Particularly in the Bay Area in Northern California, "open carry" adherents have been gathering in Starbucks and other coffee shops and restaurants -- their semi-automatic pistols and revolvers in plain view -- apparently to make an ideological statement.
The sight of such gun-toters in Starbucks reminds us of the incidents last summer, when anti-Obama protestors appeared at political events and "town hall meetings" with handguns and assault rifles openly strapped to their bodies -- including events attended by President Obama himself.
The "open carry" folks view this as "normalizing" their self-defined "right" to carry guns with them at all times wherever they please, regardless of its impact on public safety. But what about the rights of everyone else who wishes to be free from lethal weapons in public places, except for trained law enforcement?
Surveys show that the presence of more guns in a community does not make people safer, or feel safer; indeed, it has the opposite effect. Studies show that the more guns there are, the more gun violence there is in that location. In addition, 80 percent of those who don't own guns say they would feel less safe if more people in their community acquired guns; only eight percent would feel safer. Even among gun owners, roughly equal proportions would feel less safe if more people had guns versus those who would feel more safe.
Take the reaction of one coffee shop customer in San Ramon, California when faced with a group of pistol packers: "I'm scared. I'm getting out of here. They say they want to make a statement. What's wrong with a T-shirt?"
The "open carry" gatherings provoked an immediate reaction from Californians who were appalled that coffee shops and restaurants would allow guns on their premises. At least two national chains have responded responsibly.
For example, Peet's Tea & Coffee stated that its policy "is not to allow customers carrying firearms in our stores" unless they are uniformed law enforcement officers. It also indicated that it would post a notification of that policy in all its stores and would call the local police for assistance should a customer display a firearm in the future.
After being alerted by local chapters of the Brady Campaign about a scheduled "open carry" meeting at one its Northern California stores, California Pizza Kitchen issued a statement that it "does not allow guests other than uniformed officers to display firearms in our restaurants" because of its concern "that the open display of firearms would be particularly disturbing to children and their parents."
But now we come to Starbucks. When asked about the company's policy on the "open carry" of firearms in its stores, its Customer Relations Department responded to the Brady Campaign's California chapters that "Starbucks does not have a corporate policy regarding customers and weapons; we defer to federal, state and local laws and regulations regarding this issue."
Here's the problem with that answer: generally speaking - and certainly in California - businesses have the right to bar guns on their premises. It is their property and, just as they can prohibit entry by people with bare feet, they can do the same for people with guns.
Despite its response, Starbucks clearly does have a policy and it is one that should be deeply disturbing to the vast majority of its customers.
Starbucks has apparently chosen to allow civilians to carry semi-automatic pistols and possibly even assault weapons into its stores.
Such a policy is disturbing to law enforcement officials as well as Starbucks patrons. As a San Mateo County Sheriff's Lieutenant put it, "Open carry advocates create a potentially very dangerous situation," because when police respond to a "man with a gun" call, they have no idea what the intentions of the gun carrier are and "the result could be deadly."
If a mistake in judgment or perception results in a shooting at a Starbucks, will the company still have no "corporate policy regarding customers and weapons"?
This is no idle consideration. Just this past September, at a picnic hosted by "open carry" activists at a Michigan state park, a gun activist was charged with reckless use of a firearm after he unintentionally fired his semi-automatic handgun in a parking lot. Then there was the California "open carry" activist in December who was arrested for carrying his .357 magnum revolver near a school, complaining, "I just can't see what I did wrong."
Even more disturbing was the man - "of high interest to the FBI because of his alignment with violent demonstrators at abortion clinics" - who was arrested for possession of a semi-automatic handgun which he was carrying openly outside a North Carolina abortion clinic last October.
As these and other incidents show, the "open carry" movement clearly has implications beyond Starbucks. It is part of a broader campaign, led by the National Rifle Association, to force guns into every corner of American society by "normalizing" the carrying of guns in public places, openly and concealed.
The gun pushers want an America where there is nowhere that you and your family can go to be free from guns.
As just one example, the same lawyer who won the U.S. Supreme Court case two years ago which declared a Second Amendment right to have a gun in your home for self defense, has filed a new lawsuit seeking to force localities to allow civilians to carry guns on the streets.
The "open" carrying of guns is just the visible tip of the "guns everywhere" iceberg. The gun lobby's clout in state legislatures has forced consideration of dangerous proposals to allow people to legally carry concealed weapons into bars, churches, workplace parking lots, airports, parks, college campuses and elsewhere.
While most states do not require any permit, license or training of any kind to carry a semi-automatic pistol openly, the NRA assures us that those who have permits to carry concealed weapons are all "law-abiding citizens" whose gun-toting behavior protects the rest of us. Since May, 2007, however, these "law-abiding citizens" have killed at least 117 people, including nine law enforcement officers. During that same period, they have committed eleven mass shootings.
So, Starbucks, what will it be? Like Peets Tea & Coffee, will you do the socially responsible thing and stand up for the rights of families and children to be free from guns when they visit your coffee shops?
Or will you take the chance that there will be more than just shots of espresso being served up in your stores?
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