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Starbucks policy shift is small win for gun safety, big one for economic boycotts

People stand outside a Starbucks Coffee shop that has been closed as police respond to a shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington,
People stand outside a Starbucks Coffee shop that has been closed as police respond to a shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington,

By Rob Cox

Starbucks' decision this week to ask customers to leave their guns at the door will please many of its loyal customers. Gun safety advocates are also claiming the move as a major victory and are promising to move on to other retailers that allow guns in their outlets. Nobody, however, should be as charged up as Elliot Fineman.

Ever since his son Michael was randomly murdered seven years ago by a paranoid schizophrenic while dining with his wife in a San Diego restaurant, Fineman has been on a crusade urging Americans who favor safe gun laws to make their presence known economically. Fineman, who founded the National Gun Victims Action Council, contends that political pressure alone will not shift the debate in favor of measures like universal background checks. There must be an economic impact as well.

Starbucks' move is a big, tangible example of Fineman's strategy coming to fruition. In an open letter published today, the coffee-chain's chairman and chief executive Howard Schultz made "a respectful request that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas." Previously, the company's policy was to simply follow local "open carry" laws, though guns were prohibited from its corporate headquarters.

It is not a complete about-face for Starbucks. For starters, it is a request, not an outright ban. This is because the company says it doesn't want its baristas to confront armed customers. Additionally, according to Schultz, "we know we cannot satisfy everyone. For those who oppose ‘open carry,' we believe the legislative and policy-making process is the proper arena for this debate, not our stores."

So while it may not be a perfect case study, it will do for Fineman. He first raised awareness of Starbucks' permissive gun-carry policy back in February 2012 — before the mass shootings in an Aurora, Colorado cinema, a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school and now the Washington Navy Yard reignited the gun debate. On Valentine's Day of that year, his group partnered with a couple of clergy organizations to launch a nationwide boycott of Starbucks stores and its products.

By Fineman's calculation, since the boycott began some 10,700 Starbucks customers had stopped dropping in for their lattes and cappuccinos, denying the company around $11 million a year in sales as of this April. But a decision by some gun-rights groups to stage events designed to create a media sensation, called "Starbucks Appreciation Days," in which they openly carried their weapons into the company's stores as a protest against gun control measures, gave new impetus to Fineman's campaign.

In early August, when a group of these activists descended on the Starbucks in Newtown, located next to St. Rose of Lima, the Catholic church that buried a half-dozen of its young parishioners barely seven months before, Fineman's economic embargo took off. It was embraced by gun-safety advocates like Moms Demand Action and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence — who between them have hundreds of thousands of followers, as well as many parent and religious organizations across the nation.

Just over a month since, and Starbucks has caved. "We've seen the ‘open carry' debate become increasingly uncivil and, in some cases, even threatening," wrote Schultz, referring to the pro-gun protests. "To be clear: we do not want these events in our stores."

While the Starbucks decision wasn't perfect, it was enough for Fineman to call off his organization's boycott. "Right now, many of the Pro-Gunners' feelings are hurt and they are talking about boycotting Starbucks," he wrote in an email this morning. That, too, would backfire as it might embolden the chain to consider an outright ban. Fineman is also encouraged by the company's decision to take out ads this week in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other papers explaining its change in policy.

Starbucks might have been a relatively soft target. For one, it has far more stores in cities and suburban areas — where support for more restrictive gun regulations is highest — than it does in rural areas, where gun-rights arguments tend to prevail. Moreover, Schultz and Starbucks have in the past endorsed liberal causes such as marriage equality.

But Fineman is emboldened by the outcome. By his reckoning, there are nine million Americans who have seen loved ones lost to gun violence, and another five million who have survived shootings. Harnessing their buying power, along with that of the many millions who support tighter gun laws, is his mission. Now that he has had his coffee, he is energized to bring that economic pressure to bear on another target.

(Rob Cox is Global Editor of Reuters Breakingviews and a co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise, a non-profit group established after the school shooting in his hometown)

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