July 6, 2014 1:44 pm

US companies caught in crossfire on right to carry guns in stores

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Demonstrators take part in a New York rally against gun violence©Getty

Demonstrators take part in a New York rally against gun violence

Brandon Randall grew up in a small town in rural Minnesota where every family home stored licensed guns and most weekend activities centred on shooting ranges and hunting trips. But his attitude towards firearms has shifted.

“When I became a parent, my viewpoint changed dramatically on whether people should be able to carry weapons into supermarkets or drugstores – there’s just no need for a loaded rifle to be in that kind of space, or near my children,” Mr Randall said from his home in Arizona.

“I support the rights of Americans to have firearms in their houses but there’s a big difference between private property and public spaces. It doesn’t necessarily prevent me from shopping or eating in these places, but it sure makes me uncomfortable.”

While Mr Randall may be willing to keep spending, many US retailers are discovering that thousands of others are not. Frustrated by Washington’s inaction over gun violence, fledgling consumer pressure groups, often led by parent activists, are taking the issues generated by the country’s gun laws into their own hands.

“Mom groups” have turned up the heat on big-name businesses to force in-store policy changes on “open carry” rights, part of an attempt to tackle the historically passive stance of corporate America. Now, it appears that the rallies, petitions, social media campaigns and walkouts being used to grab the attention of executives are increasingly hitting their mark.

On Wednesday, Target became the latest retailer to ask shoppers to take their firearms away from its aisles after lobbying by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an anti-gun group partly funded by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Starbucks, Chipotle and Applebee's are other major household names – part of a group of at least a dozen US consumer companies – that have asked customers to leave their guns at home in the past year after similar campaigns.

“Bringing firearms into Target creates an environment that is at odds with the family friendly shopping and work experience we strive to create,” said interim chief executive officer John Mulligan.

“Starting today we respectfully request that guests not bring firearms to Target, even in communities where it is permitted by law.”

Shannon Watts, a mother of five from Indianapolis and founder of Moms Demand Action praised the company’s decision, calling it a “stunning” victory in the absence of gun reform in Congress.

“We have opened the eyes of a business icon and made them recognise that it’s more important to listen to their customer base majority than a bullying vocal minority. We say if change can’t come through government, then it can come in how we use our voices and wallets,” she said, adding that mothers are responsible for 80 per cent of spending decisions in US households.

“When state laws don’t protect customers, then companies must do it instead. A lot of this is about changing American business culture in the wake of tragedies like the Newtown school massacre. Executives must realise that they have an important and powerful role to play in demanding a new status quo.”

We have been thrust unwillingly into the debate . . . to be clear: we do not want these events in our stores

- Howard Schultz, Starbucks

Companies are caught between warring customer factions on either side of the gun control debate. Stores have become ideological battlegrounds with pro-gun “open carry” activists staging events in stores, shopping with assault-style weapons slung over their shoulders.

Target only changed its stance after demonstrations took place in stores in states including Texas, Alabama, Ohio and North Carolina in the past three months. Similarly, last September Starbucks chief executive officer Howard Schultz asked customers not to openly display firearms after his coffee shops were used as rallying points for public protests. Mr Schultz said he felt a responsibility to protect his staff and prevent the intimidation of patrons.

“We have been thrust unwillingly into the debate . . . to be clear: we do not want these events in our stores,” he said, saying both sides had played a role “in ratcheting up the rhetoric and friction.”

Many pro-gun shoppers say they will take their dollars elsewhere if retailers block their right to take responsibility for their own defence.

“No more shopping at Target, since Target feels it necessary to prevent me from protecting my family with a legally owned and legally carried firearm,” customer Peggy Conrick posted on Facebook after the company’s decision this week.

“Leaving it at home or in my car is not at option. Any store that doesn’t allow me to protect my family is a store I will not be shopping at.”

The “moms groups” campaigns also run counter to new laws across several states making it easier for licensed gun owners to carry weapons where people congregate.

On Tuesday, Georgia’s Safe Carry Protection Act came into effect, allowing gun-permit holders to bring their weapons into bars, restaurants and places of worship, unless explicitly banned by proprietors.

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