NEW YORK // The world-famous coffee franchise Starbucks has started asking its customers not to bring their guns with them.
But the chain has stopped short of banning firearms being brought on to its premises, showing the fine line it has to walk on the highly divisive issue of the right to bear arms.
Starbucks, which has the reputation of taking strong stances on progressive political issues, started running full-page advertisements in major US newspapers on Thursday asking patrons to leave their guns at home.
“We are not pro-gun or anti-gun,” said chief executive Howard Schultz, adding that customers would still be served if they chose to a carry gun.
The Seattle-based company finds itself at the centre of a fight it did not 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 a shop in Newtown, Connecticut early to avoid a demonstration by gun-rights advocates.
The town is home to the elementary school where a gunman killed 20 young children and six teachers in December.
The demonstrators 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. For some, part of the brand’s attraction is its liberal-leaning support of gay marriage and environmental issues.
At least some of Starbucks’ more than US$13 billion (Dh47.7bn) in annual revenue is derived from people who agree with its views.
But with about 7,000 company-owned stores across the country, in conservative and liberal states, Starbucks is being forced to tread carefully with its special blend of politics and commerce.
“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.
This year, the company banned smoking within eight metres 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.
At the company’s annual meeting in March, a shareholder criticised Starbucks’ support of marriage equality. Mr Schultz told the man it was a free country and that he could sell his shares.
Starbucks has also been vocal about its healthcare benefits for workers, and says it only does business with coffee farmers who pay workers decent wages and farm in an environmentally friendly way.
The company plans to buy advertising space in major national newspapers including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and USA Today to run an open letter from Mr Schultz explaining the decision.
Phillip Hofmeister, president of gun-rights group Michigan Open Carry, said he respected the right of private businesses such as Starbucks to determine their own gun policies.
But he said the message was confusing.
“They’re trying to make people like myself feel unwelcome but it’s not an outright ban,” said Mr Hofmeister, who said he had been carrying a gun in public where permitted for several years.