06 June 2010

Another Reason To Love Arizona

Arizona Daily Star

Gloria DiCenco was chatting amiably with a few Italian speakers at Beyond Bread on North Campbell Avenue on April 20 when armed men began coming in.

First there were two, then more. Finally, maybe 20 people carrying holstered guns and, in some cases, ammunition, arrived and ordered food, DiCenco said. A hush fell over the restaurant, she said, and her group's happy mood turned tense.

It happened that her Italian conversation club crossed paths with a group of local advocates of "open carry" - unconcealed carrying of firearms. And the open-carry advocates saw their Beyond Bread dinner quite differently - as noticeably unremarkable.

"That's the whole point - nothing happened," said J.D. "Duke" Schechter, who was among the group of gun carriers.

As Arizona's gun laws grow more liberal, business owners, employees and customers are increasingly confronting the issue of firearms in private businesses. In Arizona, a business may prohibit firearms on its premises, but some have found that doing so alienates customers who may have been carrying weapons concealed all along, or who simply believe in the right to bear arms. A less organized cadre of customers, like DiCenco, wonder why people feel the need to carry guns everywhere.

Facing the firearms issue is something many business people, including Beyond Bread owner Shelby Collier, would rather not do.

"We're really trying to take a neutral position," Collier said. "To the extent that that becomes a problem, I may have to take a position. I hope it doesn't come to that."

The issue didn't begin with Arizona's new concealed weapons law, which as of July 29 will allow people over age 21 (and not prohibited from possessing a weapon) to carry a concealed gun without a permit. However, it's become more pronounced as business owners realize how many people are carrying firearms, and as gun-rights advocates push for public acceptance.

Pro-gun website

One locally based website, www.GunBurger.com maintains databases of restaurants that prohibit and permit firearms. The site encourages gun owners to "vote with your dollars" when they encounter gun-prohibiting businesses and "take your business elsewhere."

The Arizona Citizens Defense League, a nonprofit group that supports expanding gun owners' legal rights, provides templates of business-sized cards on its website that users can print out to hand to business owners who prohibit firearms. Under a logo indicating no guns means no money, the cards say "You have made a decision to ban guns in your store. I am going to respect that decision and take my gun and my money to a competing business."

Pro-gun arguments have worked with some Tucson restaurant owners. The Hungry Fox, a bustling diner at 4637 E. Broadway, put up a sign prohibiting guns last year but quickly heard protests from customers who, unknown to the restaurant's owners and employees, were concealed-weapon carriers. The restaurant's management quickly reversed the policy.

"We were going to lose a lot of customers, and we can't afford to lose even one," said Dene Little, the restaurant's manager.

Even at bars, the question of whether to prohibit firearms isn't totally clear. Under state law, bar owners may permit firearms or prohibit them. For alcohol-serving establishments, state law dictates the wording, appearance and placement of signs prohibiting firearms.

Nelson Miller, owner of the Trident Grill, 2033 E. Speedway, put up such a sign last year. A retired Navy SEAL, Miller said he did so because "I don't trust other people with them (guns) as much as I trust myself."

But then he started talking to people who convinced him that the sign would not stop someone with evil intent from carrying a gun inside, and could make innocent people more vulnerable.

"The only person who cares about the rules is the guy who cares about the rules," Miller said. "I would just simply lose customers who were abiding by the law."

activists disagree

Anti-gun-violence activists dispute the notion that "law-abiding" gun carriers pose no risk. No one knows when a formerly law-abiding citizen will either break the law or otherwise misuse a firearm, said Daniel Vice, senior attorney at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

"Any time you have loaded weapons ready to fire, you increase the chance that someone will get shot," Vice said. "That can lead to accidents or shootings in the heat of the moment. Any argument can quickly escalate to a life-or-death situation if there's a loaded gun."

Customers and business owners aren't the only people who should be concerned, Vice noted. For employees, he said, the question of whether firearms are permitted could affect their workplace safety.

Starbucks, which has been at the center of a debate over firearms in businesses this year, has decided to allow guns in its stores in states where the law permits it. But it prohibits employees from carrying guns.

The policies apply only to Starbucks' company-owned stores, which make up about 61 percent of its 11,121 U.S. locations.

"Allowing guns into the workplace endangers their employees," said Vice, whose group is collecting signatures to ask Starbucks to change its policies.

He also called the company's policy disingenuous, because state law allows a business to prohibit firearms just as it may permit them.

In a statement, Starbucks said it doesn't want to put employees in the position of asking armed customers to leave.

discount offered

Beneath the debate over firearms in businesses lies a deeper disagreement over the place of firearms in society.

Many gun owners view carrying a firearm as a fundamental right - or even a responsibility - in that it allows for self-defense.

That belief helped underwrite Roy Schaefer's new business, Monkey Burger, at 5350 E. Broadway. A start-up investor made it a condition of his investment that Schaefer permit guns and give a 10 percent discount to concealed-carry permit holders.

Initially neutral on the issue, Schaefer has come to believe in the right to bear arms in public.

"I just feel that they're appropriate and should be allowed in the public with people who are responsible," he said.

He's planning to open a second restaurant, this one downtown, on Aug. 1. It will have the same firearm policies, Schaefer said.

But DiCenco, the Beyond Bread customer, said allowing guns can harm a business, too.

"I found it was pretty hard to have fun and joke in a room where there's a large group of people who are heavily armed."

key Arizona gun laws

• Guns in businesses: Arizona law does not explicitly permit or prohibit firearms in private businesses. But carrying a firearm into a private business might be considered trespassing if the business is clearly marked with a sign forbidding guns, especially if the gun carrier is asked not to enter while armed.

• Guns in bars: Establishments where alcohol is sold may permit firearms, but a person carrying a firearm in such a business may not consume alcohol. If the owner wishes to ban firearms, a sign with a specific design, wording and placement must be posted. The sign is available for downloading at the website of the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control, azliquor.gov/firearms.html

• Carrying a gun: As of July 29, anyone over 21 in Arizona may carry a gun, concealed or in the open, as long as the person is not a prohibited possessor, such as a felon or a visitor or student from another country.

• Where guns are prohibited: State law explicitly prohibits guns in certain places, most notably any posted government office, from the lowliest municipal building to the state Capitol, although they are now required to offer storage. Carrying a firearm is also prohibited on school grounds, at election polling places, and at hydroelectric or nuclear plants.

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