A man stands with a .45-caliber handgun strapped to his hip while looking on at an anti-gun rally in Seattle, March 3, 2010.Elaine Thompson/AP
Starbucks said Wednesday that guns are no longer welcome in its cafes, though it is stopping short of an outright ban on firearms.
The fine line that the retailer is walking to address the concerns of both gun-rights advocates and proponents of gun-control reflects how heated the issue has become, particularly in light of Tuesday's Navy Yard shooting in Washington.
Until its policy change, Starbucks was just one of many companies that did not have policies banning firearms in their stores. But the coffee company has recently become a symbol for gun-rights advocates, with one particular website -- I Love Guns & Coffee -- even selling products bearing an altered version of the Starbucks logo, with the familiar coffee chain siren holding up a gun in each hand.
In an interview, CEO Howard Schultz said the decision to ask customers to stop bringing guns into stores came as a result of the growing frequency of "Starbucks Appreciation Days" in recent months, in which gun-rights advocates turn up at Starbucks cafes with firearms.
Last month, the company closed down a Newtown, Conn., store for the day, after learning that gun-rights advocates planned to hold a "Starbucks Appreciation Day" at the location. The store was near Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults in December 2012.
Schultz said the events mischaracterized the company's stance on the issue and the demonstrations "have made our customers uncomfortable." Schultz 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.
Jaime Riley, communications officer at Starbucks, told Al Jazeera that the request should by no means be interpreted as a ban. "It's just a request. We're just really hopeful that our customers be respectful and honor this request."
Starbucks plans to run an open letter Thursday explaining the decision. The missive points to recent activities by both gun-rights proponents and gun-control advocates at its stores, saying that it has been "thrust unwillingly" into the middle of the national debate over firearms.
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which was formed the day after the shooting, has been organizing "Skip Starbucks Saturdays" to urge the coffee company to ban guns at its stores. Participants post photos of themselves at competitors such as Peet's Coffee, which does not allow guns in its stores. Its unclear how Peet's enforces such a policy.
As for the "Starbucks Appreciation Days" being staged by gun-rights advocates, the Starbucks letter stresses: "To be clear: we do not want these events in our stores."
Riley, who recognized that people on both sides of the gun debate are passionate about their views, said that the issue "should not be a part of the coffee experience."
The letter also 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.
"We don't want to put our partners in a position where they have to enforce any formal ban," Riley said.
Lisa De Bode contributed to this report. With The Associated Press.