Earlier this week, national burrito chain Chipotle requested that customers refrain from bringing guns into their restaurants. The company issued the appeal in response to a social media campaign led by reform groups, sparked by a photo of firearm enthusiasts openly carrying rifles in a Dallas-area restaurant. Starbucks issued a similar “no-carry” request in September 2013, suggesting that private businesses may become the new arena for determining the scope of American gun rights. Given the tendency of firearms debates to spiral, business owners may soon have to confront an issue they probably don’t teach in typical MBA programs: do I ban carrying firearms in my store?
Safety and security will probably not decide this issue. With violent crime at stable lows, property crime declining, and the average value of stolen goods in business robberies amounting to only $1,754, businesses are unlikely to be either overly fearful of the risks of armed people in their establishments or overly appreciative of the security they provide against a negligible risk.
The decision will likely come down to the first rule of business: the customer is always right. How comfortable customers are alongside people prominently displaying guns will probably guide owners’ decisions.
Starbucks and Chipotle cited the same motivation in their no-carry requests. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz called the presence of weapons “unsettling and upsetting,” while Chipotle called the display of guns “potentially intimidating or uncomfortable for many of our customers.” This directly affects a business’s bottom line, as customers’ comfort in a store is tied to purchasing decisions.
Here are a few factors to consider as this issue unfolds:
- Gun ownership: Gun owners are, unsurprisingly, comfortable around firearms, and research suggests that being around or involved in firearm culture can encourage others to be more comfortable owning and using firearms. Gun ownership figures in the United States remain cloudy, but evidence suggests that the percent of gun-owning Americans, after falling as low as 33-34 percent, is climbing again, possibly as high as 47 percent in 2012. If the number of gun owners increases and Americans grow more comfortable around firearms, businesses will be less likely to alienate an increasingly large segment of potential customers with no-carry requests.
- High-profile incidents: Both the Chipotle and Starbucks no-carry requests were sparked by similar incidents: publicized, high-profile visits to franchises by gun-rights activists prominently displaying firearms, followed by a backlash from gun-reform advocates. For gun owners, these demonstrations may actually be counterproductive—highly visible rifles may breed discomfort in a way that a handgun unobtrusively holstered beneath a shirt or jacket does not. In their no-carry requests, Chipotle and Starbucks showed a strong desire to stay out of one of America’s most contentious policy debates and, absent the kind of external pressure imposed on these two companies, other businesses may be hesitant to alienate customers through behavior bans or overt political statements. Similarly, serious or highly publicized incidents like mass shootings could dramatically alter businesses’ perceptions of the risks and rewards of allowing firearms on their premises.
- Corporate brand: While no corporation is likely to go out of its way to alienate any customers, if outside pressure forces them to pick a side, they may choose to play to their customer base. Liberals and conservatives don’t always patronize the same businesses, and these differences vary by region. Similarly, there are dramatic differences in gun ownership by area: in 2002, the percentage of homes with firearms ranged from 5.2 percent in DC to 62.8 percent in Wyoming. If forced to pick, a business will likely take into account its core constituency—and smart businesses will probably leave the question up to individual franchise owners, who can adapt policies to local sentiment and climate.
With federal action stalled and states increasingly unified in one direction or another, the next big question in the guns debate will be how private businesses handle firearms. This decision will likely hinge on how willing their customers are to share the burrito line or barista counter with a firearm.