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August 21, 2014

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Lessons from the Starbucks non-backlash

It has been more than two weeks since Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz issued a “respectful request” for customers to stop bringing guns into his company’s coffee shops, and the response by and large has been one of courteous compliance. Considering how polarized and emotional America’s gun debates usually get, some people were sure Starbucks was in for weeks of controversy. “The backlash and boycott talk has already begun,” reported the Los Angeles Times the day Schultz’s open letter appeared.

Entrepreneur.com’s Ray Hennessey, an experienced business editor, warned that Starbucks risked “alienating a large portion of its customer base.”

That didn’t happen. And to judge from a new nationwide survey, it isn’t going to.

Asked about the Starbucks no-guns request in the latest Quinnipiac University poll, two of every three respondents — 66 percent — call it a good idea. Even among individuals from gun-owning households, 52 percent support Starbucks’ position. The overwhelming majority, 72 percent, say it won’t make any difference in where they get their coffee. The scale of that placid response is the same across every demographic subgroup: Democrats and Republicans, men and women, Northeasterners and Southerners, city-dwellers and rural residents — and, yes, gun owners — all say by lopsided majorities that Starbucks’ shift on guns isn’t going to change their economic behavior.

For the record, I’ve long been a Starbucks customer. I’ve been a supporter of gun rights for even longer. I often find myself in the minority on political or cultural questions, but on this I share the mainstream view: I have no problem with Schultz’s request, and my coffee-buying habits won’t change.

Some anti-gun advocates applauded Starbucks’ appeal to customers last month as a gain for their side — “the first step to setting boundaries for America’s gun-loving culture,” as an admiring essay in National Journal was headlined. But the broad approval measured by the Quinnipiac poll is clearly no proxy for public feelings about guns or gun control. Most states allow citizens to carry firearms openly, and opposition to stricter gun restrictions is at its highest level in over a year.

It’s just as clear that Americans aren’t backing Starbucks so strongly because they can’t live without the company’s grande lattes and double espressos. Half of the voters surveyed by Quinnipiac never even go to Starbucks.

The lack of an anti-Starbucks backlash isn’t about brand loyalty, and it doesn’t reflect hostility to guns.

It suggests to me instead that Americans appreciate the civility of Schultz’s request and instinctively sympathize with the right of a private company not to be turned into an ideological battleground against its wishes.

In his letter, the Starbucks CEO acknowledged the “deep passion for and against the ‘open carry’ laws adopted by many states” and expressed dismay at how “increasingly uncivil and, in some cases, even threatening” the debate over gun rights has become. The company preferred not to take sides, and its long-standing rule had been to defer to local law, permitting customers to openly carry guns in states that allow it.

But with pro- and anti-gun activists “ratcheting up the rhetoric and friction” and using Starbucks cafes to force the issue, Schultz pleaded for a truce. People who want to fight about gun laws should use the “legislative and policy-making process.” Starbucks is for people who want coffee, tea and free Wi-Fi. Plenty of people disagree with Schultz’s decision. But the majority of Americans — including a majority of gun owners — are OK with it.

Why can’t this be the norm whenever it comes to the intersection of private companies and public controversies?

If a traditionally Christian florist wishes to politely decline the offer to arrange the flowers for a same-sex wedding, why shouldn’t she be free to do so? If a passionately liberal shopkeeper courteously asks a customer not to come in with a T-shirt proclaiming “Impeach Obama,” or a conservative landlord says he’d prefer not to rent to an unmarried cohabiting couple, would it be so terrible to shrug and let it go? If a restaurant owner has no objection to letting customers smoke, why can’t would-be diners accept that house rule gracefully and go elsewhere if they prefer a smoke-free meal?

Under current law, at least some of these scenarios would be grounds for lawsuit or prosecution.

Why must that be the case? Most merchants and vendors are not in the habit of turning customers away, and commerce operates to break down bigotry and irrational discrimination. But life isn’t always so tidy. Sometimes there are rifts between a private company’s idea of what’s good for business and other people’s idea of what all right-thinking people should believe.

The Starbucks non-uproar is a reminder that we could do with a little more live-and-let-live in this country. The hard-liners on divisive issues may always be spoiling for a fight, but they shouldn’t always have the right to turn other people’s livelihood into their battleground.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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