NEW YORK (AP) — Starbucks began running full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers Thursday, telling customers that guns are no longer welcome in its cafes. But the company stopped short of an outright ban, exposing the fine line it needs to walk on a highly divisive issue.
The Seattle-based company, which has always set itself apart by taking strong positions on progressive political issues, now finds itself at the center of a fight it didn't start.
"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.
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, 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 educators 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. 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 both conservative and liberal-leaning states— 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 (7.62 meters) 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 has also 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 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.
The Seattle-based company plans 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.
Phillip Hofmeister, president of gun rights group Michigan Open Carry Inc., said he respects the right of private businesses such as Starbucks to determine its 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.
Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi