Gun Control Battle Has Moved Beyond Politicians

Target's decision to ask customers to leave guns at home proves the people, not the politicians, have the power.

Stephanie McDonald and James Franklin buy coffee while participating in an open carry demonstration on Dec. 7, 2013, in Midland, Texas.

Customers buy coffee while participating in an open carry demonstration last year in Texas. 

By + More

Across the country, customers with handguns in their holsters and assault rifles on their backs have sparked a fierce debate and revealed the battle over the Second Amendment isn’t just for politicians in Washington anymore. The gun control issue has shifted in the last year from the halls of Congress to the aisles of retail stores and restaurants.

Last week, after a month of demonstrations, Target became the latest business to request shoppers leave their guns at home in an effort to maintain a “family-friendly shopping and work experience.”

[READ: Gun Violence Plagues Independence Day Weekend in Chicago]

The retail giant Target joined other companies like Starbucks, Chipotle, Wendy’s and Jack in the Box that have taken a stand against "open carry" gun advocates who want to underscore their right to bear arms by carrying guns in stores and other public places. While CEOs usually are busy worried about the bottom line, recently they have been forced into the middle of one of the country’s most contentious political debates.

“They do not want to get involved. We are dragging them kicking and screaming to be in the middle of it,” says Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “When state and local laws don’t protect customers adequately, businesses need to step up.”

In the year and a half since a gunman walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed 20 first graders and six adults, gun control advocates have been dismayed by the intransigence on Capitol Hill. Though there has been some success in passing gun control measures in state legislatures across the country from Colorado to New York, Watts says she decided there had to be another way to take a stand. So she harnessed the purchasing power of parents.

“Congress refused to do the right thing, but it was not as if the issue is going to go away. When you are a mother and 20 first graders were slaughtered in the sanctity of their own classroom, you don’t just slink off with your diaper bag,” Watts says. “We are going to pull the different levers that will make a difference.”

Watts says some retailers have been so spooked by the public opinion fight over the Second Amendment that they have come to Moms Demand Action privately and asked what they can do to avoid being the target of one of the group’s campaigns.

Yet, Target's position on firearms in their stores is merely a suggestion, not a policy they plan to enforce. Customers who enter the store with guns will not be asked to leave if they are following local laws.

"Our approach has always been to follow local laws, and of course, we will continue to do so. But starting today, we will also respectfully request that guests not bring firearms to Target - even in communities where it is permitted by law," Target CEO John Mulligan said in a statement.

[OPINION: Three Common-Sense Ways To Reduce Gun Deaths]

That has led some on the gun rights side to criticize Target for taking any action at all.

“What they are doing is straddling the fence. They are trying to make everyone happy,” says Jerry Henry, executive director of Georgia Carry, a guns right group. “If you make a decision that I cannot carry a firearm into your business, I just don’t go there.”

Still, gun control activists like Watts hailed Target's announcement as a victory, because some open-carry activists, like Henry, have promised to take their business elsewhere. Other gun enthusiasts are urging their supporters to respect Target's request.

Members of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America bow their heads in silence during a memorial for Ana Marquez-Greene, a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, on what would have been her 7th birthday on April 4, 2013, in Times Square in New York City.
Members of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America bow their heads in silence during a memorial for Ana Marquez-Greene, a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, on what would have been her 7th birthday on April 4, 2013, in Times Square in New York City.

“While this is not a ban on legally possessed firearms in its stores, we will continue to honor our months-long policy of not taking long arms into Target stores or any other business,” Open Carry Texas wrote on its website. “Engaging in the businesses of interfering with or making a scene at private corporations is something to which Open Carry Texas has never lowered itself, a practice we will maintain.” The group's statement did not mention handguns, which under Texas law must be concealed in public.

Some blame open-carry groups for the current corporate dilemma.

“I am not really sure what they are trying to do,” says Allison Anderman, a staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a group that pushes for stricter gun laws. “People are forgetting that the rest of the country does not want to live in a society where we walk around with guns. Most of society recognizes the truth that guns do not make us safer."

Even the National Rifle Association worried the tactics of some pro-gun groups were amiss. The NRA issued a warning to members that bringing assault rifles to shop or eat was “downright weird.”

“It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates,” the NRA said in an unsigned statement in May, after Chipotle asked customers not to bring guns into their restaurants.

But, facing backlash from members, the NRA quickly issued a "clarification" saying it “unequivocally” supported open carry.

“What this comes down to is a tactics discussion,” NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox said. “Our job is not to criticize the lawful behavior of fellow gun owners.”

While the debate over open carry has resurfaced in recent months, it has long been the policy of some corporations not to allow guns in their stores at all. At Buffalo Wild Wings, Whole Foods, Peet's Coffee & Tea and Costco Wholesale, to name a few, it is not merely a request; it is the rule. On its website, the membership-only club Costco states that it "does not believe that it is necessary for firearms to be brought into its warehouse stores."

[WALSH: Obama Decries Lack of Action on Guns]

"If you believe that our policy restricting members from bringing firearms into our warehouse stores is either unfair or excessively burdensome, or you cannot agree to abide by this policy, or you are dissatisfied for any other reason, Costco will promptly refund your annual membership fee in full," the statement says.

Open carry supporters hold a rally on April 27, 2014, in Romulus, Mich.
Open carry supporters rally in Romulus, Mich., in April.

The pro-gun website Second Amendment Check has a 40-business long boycott list where they urge their members not to shop. That list includes Costco, Whole Foods, IKEA, Cinemark, AMC Theatres, Hooters, Toys R Us, The New York Times Company and others.

Some corporations have even taken advanced steps to alert their customers of their gun policies. U.S. Bankcorp, the parent company for U.S. Bank, sent a letter to a customer in 2013 alerting him that guns were not allowed on the property.

"Please refrain from bringing any weapon onto U.S. Bank premises in the future," stated the letter, which was posted as a PDF on the pro-gun website AmmoLand. "Further action will be taken if a U.S. Bank employee observes or learns that you or any other customer is in possession of a weapon on U.S. Bank premises."

Jessie Spaulding, a waitress at Shooters Grill in Rifle, Colo., brings food to a table on June 23, 2014.
Shooters Grill waitress Jessie Spaulding serves food while wearing a sidearm on June 23.

Gun rights activists may see these corporate decisions as only a minor setback. Just last week, Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have banned high-powered magazines in New Jersey, and a Georgia state law went into effect that allows the state’s licensed gun owners to enter some churches, bars, schools and even select government buildings with their firearms.

“And how many people have been killed so far?” Henry asks in a nod to opponents of the law who said it would cause a spike in violence. “This law changes very little.”

There are still a host of retailers who have not taken a stand against guns in stores. Wal-Mart, which sells guns in some of its outlets, allows customers to carry handguns in accordance with local laws. Some smaller mom-and-pop businesses have also made guns a regular part of the experience.

In Rifle, Colorado, at a little burger joint called Shooters Grill, your waitress may be packing heat and you may order the “Locked and Loaded Nachos,” if you wish.

“It is kind of a way of life here,” restaurant owner Lauren Boebert told CNN in an interview this week. “For us, open carry was not a big deal until just recently.”