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Open-carry supporters gather outside a Starbucks that closed early in response to their planned event in Newtown, Conn., Aug. 9, 2013. Starbucks, reversing a policy that had allowed customers to openly carry guns in states that allow it, said Sept. 18, 2013, that will now ask customers not bring firearms into its stores. The company said the policy was not a response to last year's shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. (LISA WILTSE/NYT)
Open-carry supporters gather outside a Starbucks that closed early in response to their planned event in Newtown, Conn., Aug. 9, 2013. Starbucks, reversing a policy that had allowed customers to openly carry guns in states that allow it, said Sept. 18, 2013, that will now ask customers not bring firearms into its stores. The company said the policy was not a response to last year's shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. (LISA WILTSE/NYT)

At Starbucks, a small taste of victory in a wider battle against gun violence Add to ...

When Shannon Watts discovered on Tuesday evening that Starbucks Corp. would ask customers not to carry guns in its stores, it was a moment to savour.

For months, Ms. Watts – the founder of a new advocacy group composed of mothers against gun violence – had campaigned for the coffee chain to reverse its stance allowing firearms wherever it was permitted by law.

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“It’s not normal to bring your assault weapon to get a latte,” said Ms. Watts, a mother of five from Indiana. Openly carrying guns, she added, should be “as distasteful as smoking and drunk driving.”

The announcement helped brighten an otherwise dispiriting trip to Washington, she said. On Monday, there had been a mass shooting just two kilometres from Capitol Hill where a gunman opened fire, killing 12 people. And despite the violence, the legislators Ms. Watts spoke to reiterated that they did not have the votes to pass any fresh restrictions on gun ownership.

The move by Starbucks represents a small skirmish in a much broader battle. Nine months have passed since the massacre of 20 children and six educators in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. – an event so shocking that some believed it would jolt the nation’s leaders into passing new measures to rein in gun violence.

It has not turned out that way. At the federal level, members of Congress have failed to pass a single new restriction on gun buyers. At the state level, there has been more progress on tightening gun controls. But those moves have also triggered a determined response by advocates for gun rights: In Colorado, they led a successful campaign to sack two of the legislators responsible for reform measures.

Gun-control advocates say that despite the relative lack of legislative progress, they are heartened by an influx of resources and activists to their cause. Ms. Watts founded her group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the day after the Newtown massacre; today it has 100,000 members. Gabrielle Giffords, a member of Congress gunned down in a 2011 shooting in Arizona, started her own advocacy group and is giving money to candidates who support stricter gun laws. And Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York City, began his own effort last year to direct donations to pro-gun control candidates.

So far, such moves have not altered the calculus at the national level. In April, a bipartisan effort to expand background checks for gun purchasers collapsed in the U.S. Senate amid considerable acrimony. An earlier attempt to pass a ban on assault weapons went nowhere.

Congressional leaders say they are still hoping to expand background checks – a move favoured by a large majority of Americans, polls show – but the legislative arithmetic remains unchanged. “We don’t have the votes,” said Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, on Tuesday. “I hope to get them, but we don’t have them now.”

Since the shooting in Newtown, states like Colorado, Connecticut, New York and Maryland have tightened their gun laws, for instance by limiting the amount of ammunition in magazines or requiring background checks for private gun sales.

Still, many politicians remain wary of crossing the powerful gun lobby and its supporters. A recent case will do nothing to bolster their courage: Earlier this month, two Colorado state legislators were ousted after gun advocates launched a recall vote to punish them for supporting stricter gun laws. The campaign attracted $3.5-million (U.S.) in political spending, most of it from the pro-gun control side, which still failed to prevail.

The latest mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard – the 20th in the U.S. since the start of 2009 – is unlikely to sway advocates on either side of the debate. It appears that the gunman, Aaron Alexis, purchased his weapons legally in Virginia. His mental health issues do not seem to have reached the legal threshold – being involuntarily committed, for instance – that would have prevented him from owning a weapon.

For a company like Starbucks, the passions on both sides of the gun divide had put the firm in the last place it wanted to be: smack in the middle of a raging public-policy fight. Gun enthusiasts had gathered at its stores, including one in Newtown, to praise the company’s willingness to allow customers to carry weapons. Gun-control advocates like Ms. Watts countered with events of their own, where they urged customers to boycott the coffee chain.

In the end, Starbucks stopped short of announcing an outright ban, something other companies – like discount retailer Costco and pharmacy chain CVS – have implemented. Instead, chief executive Howard Schultz made an open request. “Starbucks stores are places where everyone should feel relaxed and comfortable,” he wrote in a letter posted on the company’s website. “The presence of a weapon in our stores is unsettling and upsetting for many of our customers.”

A spokesperson for the National Rifle Association did not respond to a request for comment on the step by Starbucks.

Meanwhile, Ms. Watts says her group is moving on to its next target: office-supply chain Staples, which does not have a nationwide policy banning guns in its stores. She is not daunted by the lack of action by federal policymakers on gun control. “I’m beyond disgusted by our Congress, but I am not discouraged,” she said. “We always knew this was going to be a marathon.”

Follow on Twitter: @jslaternyc

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