NEW YORK – Starbucks has always set itself apart by taking strong positions on progressive political issues. Now that reputation has landed the company in the middle of the heated national debate over gun laws.
On Thursday, the Seattle-based company is running full-page ads in major newspapers, telling customers that guns are no longer welcome in its cafes. But Starbucks is stopping short of an outright ban, exposing the fine line it needs to walk on a highly divisive issue.
"We are not pro-gun or anti-gun," CEO Howard Schultz said in an interview, noting that customers will still be served if they choose to a carry gun.
The move comes as the company finds itself at the center of a fight it didn't start.
In recent months, gun control advocates have been pressuring Starbucks to ban firearms, while supporters of gun rights have celebrated the company's decision to defer to local laws.
About a month ago, Starbucks shut down a store in Newtown, Conn., early to avoid a demonstration by gun rights advocates. They had planned to stage a "Starbucks Appreciation Day," bringing their firearms and turning the company into an unwitting supporter of gun rights.
Support for guns runs counter to the Starbucks image. The warm feeling Starbucks customers get when they're sipping lattes doesn't always come from the coffee.
For some, part of the brand's attraction is the company's liberal-leaning support of gay marriage and environmental issues. At least some of Starbucks' more than $13 billion in annual revenue is derived from people who agree with the company's views.
But with some 7,000 company-owned stores across the country — in red states and blue — Starbucks is being forced to tread carefully with its special blend of politics and commerce.
Many states allow people to carry licensed guns in some way, but some businesses exercise their right to ban firearms. They can do so because their locations are considered private property.
Starbucks isn't the only company that doesn't ban guns, but it has become a target for gun control advocates, in part because of its corporate image.
"This is a coffee company that has championed progressive issues," said Shannon Watts, founder of the gun reform group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. "They've positioned themselves about being about the human spirit — that was so at odds with this policy that allowed guns inside their stores."
Starbucks' mission statement is to "inspire and nurture the human spirit" and over the years, it has taken strong positions on a number of thorny issues.
Earlier this year, the company banned smoking within 25 feet of its stores, wherever its leases allowed. The idea was to extend its no-smoking policy to the outdoor seating areas, regardless of state laws on the matter.
At the company's annual meeting in March, a shareholder stood to criticize Starbucks' support of marriage equality. Schultz told the man it was a free country and that he could sell his shares.
Starbucks also has been vocal about its health care benefits for workers. And the company says it only does business with coffee farmers who pay workers decent wages and farm in an environmentally friendly way.
Such stances explain why Moms Demand Action, which was founded the day after the mass shootings in Newtown last December, has been urging Starbucks to ban guns with its "Skip Starbucks Saturdays."
In turn, gun rights advocates have been galvanized by the company's decision to defer to local laws and staged the "Starbucks Appreciation Days."
Schultz said the events mischaracterized the company's stance on the issue and the demonstrations "have made our customers uncomfortable."
He said he hopes people will honor the request not to bring in guns but says the company will nevertheless serve those who do."We will not ask you to leave," he said.
Starbucks planned to buy ad space in major national newspapers including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and USA Today to run an open letter from Schultz explaining the decision.
The letter points to recent activities by both gun rights and gun control advocates at its stores, saying that it has been "thrust unwillingly" into the middle of the national debate over firearms.
As for the "Starbucks Appreciation Days" being staged by gun rights advocates, the letter stresses: "To be clear: We do not want these events in our stores."
The letter notes that Starbucks is standing by its position that the matter should ultimately be left to lawmakers.
Schultz also said he doesn't want to put workers in the position of having to confront armed customers by banning guns.
Phillip Hofmeister, president of gun rights group Michigan Open Carry Inc., said he respects the right of private businesses such as Starbucks to determine their own gun policies. But he noted that the message was confusing.
"They're trying to make people like myself feel unwelcome but it's not an outright ban," said Hofmeister, who said he has been carrying a gun in public where permitted for the past several years.
Even if there's no ban, Hofmeister said he won't patronize a business where he didn't feel welcome.
Several companies do not allow firearms in their stores, including Peet's Coffee & Tea and Whole Foods.
Representatives for those two companies said there haven't been any problems with enforcing their gun bans.