On Monday, Panera Bread became the latest U.S. company to ask customers to leave their guns at home.
The bakery-cafe chain joins Starbucks, Chipotle, Target and a handful of other restaurants and retailers in making such a request, which comes amid an increasingly heated debate over the role of guns in public places.
“Within our company, we strive to create Panera Warmth," the company said in a statement released Monday. "This warmth means bakery-cafes where customers and associates feel comfortable and welcome. To this end, we ask that guns not be brought into this environment unless carried by an authorized law enforcement officer. Panera respects the rights of gun owners, but asks our customers to help preserve the environment we are working to create for our guests and associates.”
On one side of the debate over guns in stores is a Michael Bloomberg-funded women's group formed in response to the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre. Called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the group argues that people should not openly carry weapons in the nation's stores or in public at all. They're pushing back against so-called open carry supporters -- pro-gun activists seeking broad social acceptance of guns in public.
A group calling itself Open Carry Texas has in recent months staged rallies at stores and inside several dining chains. The moms' group circulated photos from those events, which show people carrying assault rifles and other large guns inside popular dining chains, as part of a campaign to convince the companies to adopt no-gun policies.
Last week, Moms Demand Action launched a six-figure advertising campaign to pressure Kroger, the nation's largest grocery chain, to also ask customers to not bring guns into its stores. So far, Kroger has resisted the call.
The companies that have decided to ask customers to leave guns at home have framed the new policy as a request, saying that they do not want to put employees in the position of confronting an armed customer.
Panera, based in St. Louis, is a $2.4 billion company with nearly 2,000 locations. It has not previously been the target of a protest effort by Moms Demand Action, though in a statement, the group's founder Shannon Watts said the decision followed "months of discussion between Panera and Moms Demand Action."
Moms Demand Action has attracted national attention -- and scorn from the pro-gun groups -- for its campaign to keep guns from being openly displayed in places where people eat and shop.
Supporters argue that the weapons are frightening, and that it is dangerous to ask shoppers and law enforcement officers to distinguish between people carrying guns peacefully and those intending to do harm. Open carry activists in Texas say their rallies are meant to put pressure on the state government to repeal a law that makes it illegal to openly carry handguns.
Both groups have promised effective boycotts of chains that don't support their preferred policy. So far, momentum is moving in favor of the moms.
"We demand that businesses act to protect their customers when lawmakers do not," said Erika Soto Lamb, a spokeswoman for Everytown For Gun Safety, an umbrella group that includes Moms Demand Action. "Moms are the consumers-in-chief of our households, and we will reward companies that take a stand for our families’ safety."
This is a developing story and has been updated.