• Guns and coffee
    September 20,2013
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    It is worth considering the dilemma of Starbucks to see what the nation is up against in trying to confront the culture of guns and the violence it spawns.

    Just a few days after yet another spasm of mass murder — this time at the Washington Navy Yard, where an apparently disturbed man killed 12 people — the president of Starbucks published an open letter to “fellow Americans” explaining Starbucks’ policy on guns in its coffee houses.

    Who knew it was an issue? Starbucks puts itself forward as a place to kick back and relax. But it turns out that guns are so pervasive in our culture that customers in states with “open carry” laws have become alarmed to see guns on the persons of other customers. In several instances, firearms have accidentally discharged inside women’s purses.

    It may surprise gun-toting devotees of the Second Amendment that the presence of guns makes people uncomfortable.

    Defenders of gun rights often argue that guns handy for use in self-defense ought to make us more comfortable, not less; that they make us safer; that they allow people to protect themselves from harm. It turns out a lot of people disagree.

    They see a gun and they wonder if the owner of the gun is reliable, stable, able to distinguish between real and imagined threats. Recent history has confronted us with all too many instances where guns have been employed by crazed loners or by gang members or are accidentally discharged, killing innocent bystanders. In recent years crazy people have shot up a movie theater, a school, a shopping mall and now the Washington Navy Yard. A bystander with a gun came close to firing on another innocent bystander in the chaos after the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

    So Starbucks has become sensitive to the uncomfortable feelings of some its customers with regard to the presence of firearms in its coffee houses. But the company finds it must also be sensitive to the uncomfortable feelings of people who like to carry guns. Lest they offend these sensitive souls, the company has announced a policy whereby it will ask gun owners not to bring their guns inside their coffee shops, but it will not post signs barring guns, nor will it ask its employees to seek compliance with the policy.

    Forcing the latte specialist behind the counter to confront a customer with a gun — either asking him to leave or to put his weapon in the car — would be to create an awkward situation for the employee, timid about making the gun owner uncomfortable. But the question remains: Whose discomfort will be catered to? The gun owner or the person made nervous by the gun?

    Starbucks is not alone in its timidity about standing up to gun owners on behalf of those aware of the danger caused by the pervasiveness of firearms. Members of Congress have shown similar timidity. Members of state legislatures all across the country are likely to provoke a fierce counterattack if they take steps to regulate guns — it has happened in Colorado. In Vermont neither Gov. Peter Shumlin nor the Legislature has been willing to stand up against the gun lobby.

    Like the pervasiveness of electronic surveillance, the widespread presence of guns has created a growing sense of unease. The push to allow guns in public places — parks, schools, coffee shops — has only spread the sense of dread that the management of Starbucks found itself forced to acknowledge.

    It has never been shown that returning to the atmosphere of the Wild West is likely to make the nation safer. In fact, as the nation’s frontiers were settled, the pervasive presence of firearms diminished and civilization advanced. Guns in Starbucks, like guns in schools, are a sign that the norms of civilization are eroding.

    The NRA responds that allowing people to carry will help people protect themselves from the violence following from those eroding norms. The customers of Starbucks are apparently convinced that the guns themselves are working to erode even the civilizing effect of a robust cup of coffee.
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