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Pity poor Starbucks.

In the end, the Seattle-based coffee giant says all it wants to do is sell coffee.

But increasingly, it has been dragged into the fracas between open-carry gun activists who want to be able to keep taking their firearms with them when they buy their morning lattes and gun-control advocates who’d rather the company banned such behavior.

Starbucks struck a compromise when it announced this week that guns were no longer welcome in its stores, but stopped short of an outright ban.

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The company will run an ad in some major newspapers Thursday, an open letter from CEO Howard Schultz, explaining that his company is being used as a political stage and that guns in his stores make his customers uneasy.

Some are calling it a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; Starbucks, in a Q&A for employees said deciding to make this public request was not easy.

The company said it is not asking its employees to enforce the policy, to avoid confrontations with armed customers.

Zack Hutson, a company spokesman, said Wednesday the Starbucks brand is being misrepresented in an increasingly “uncivil” debate.

“We’re not anti-gun or pro-gun,” he said. “We simply believe weapons should not be part of the coffee-house experience.

“Most of our customers and partners are more comfortable without them in the stores. Everyone is welcome; guns are not.”

On blogs and comment threads Wednesday, the announcement set off a firestorm — with open-carry supporters saying the company caved to pressure, and those clamoring for an outright ban saying it didn’t go far enough.

Dave Workman, senior editor at The GunMag, a publication of the Second Amendment Foundation in Bellevue, said reaction from gun-rights supporters has been mixed: “You have people who are swearing they’re not going to spend another penny with Starbucks and others admonishing some of their own for boorish behavior and practicing in-your-face politics at a private business.

“I almost feel sorry for Starbucks,” he said, “stuck in a place they don’t want to be.”

With 7,000 company-owned stores across the country, Starbucks prides itself in being a “third place” — away from home and work — where customers can sit with a cup of coffee and their laptop or have a conversation with a friend.

There’s almost an expectation that such an apparently liberal-leaning company with a ubiquitous presence would be the kind of place to ban guns outright.

But the gun issue has hounded the company since it said in 2010 that it adheres to laws in states where it operates — permitting guns in states with open-carry laws and prohibiting them where such laws don’t exist.

More recently, open-carry supporters have been holding “Starbucks Appreciation Days,” events in which gun-rights advocates show up in stores with their guns — a practice Schultz in his announcement Tuesday called a disingenuous portrayal of the company as a champion of open carry.

Kate Beck, a Shoreline mother of two and a member of the group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America that formed in the wake of last year’s Newtown, Conn., school shooting, was encouraged by Schultz’s announcement.

Starbucks, she said, “has tried to stay neutral and I think this is the best neutral position they can have, while keeping their employees and patrons safe.”

Moms Demand Action counts among its 100,000 members nationwide — about 900 of them in Washington state — hunters and a sharpshooter.

The group has been trying to urge change at Starbucks by staging a national boycott, “Skip Starbucks Saturdays,” and was prepared to deliver more than 50,000 signatures it gathered in recent months.

“We turned up the heat and made it a real focus since the gun enthusiasts were using Starbucks as a rallying place for their open-carry meetings,” Beck said.

“I think it shows the brilliance of Howard Schultz asking responsible gun owners to respect the policy.”

Jim Beal is a Vietnam veteran who carries his holstered .45 with him at all times — including into Starbucks throughout the region. He said the announcement doesn’t really change anything.

He’s loosely affiliated with the group, which focuses on the right to openly carry holstered handguns, and said he doesn’t condone the “showboat” activities of some enthusiasts.

The 60-year-old Beal has testified before the Legislature — taking his gun with him into the state Capitol — and has offered classes on the state’s gun laws.

He said he’ll continue to take his gun into Starbucks, something he said has never drawn negative response — even in downtown Seattle.

“A lot of people are pretty upset and I know gun owners who are planning to cash in their Starbucks cards,” Beal said.

“The way I see it, basically things are still as they were before. They say they prefer we not do it, but they won’t ask us to leave.”

Ralph Fascitelli, president of Washington CeaseFire, said while the announcement was a good first step, he accused Starbucks of “fence-sitting” by not banning guns outright and Schultz of waffling.

“He equivocated. We don’t want you bringing guns into our stores, but we’ll serve you?” Fascitelli said.

“I think they’ve handled this issue horribly; they made a bad business move (with the 2010 announcement), now they’re in this in-between place where they’re creating more problems for themselves.”

CeaseFire recently worked with Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn on a campaign to get Seattle businesses to declare themselves Gun Free Zones, and Fascitelli said they didn’t specifically reach out to Starbucks.

It’s not true, he said, that companies must allow guns in their stores just because state and local laws allow people to openly carry.

“Private businesses have the right to allow or disallow those carrying guns just as they can deny service to people not wearing shirts or shoes,” he said.

Ultimately, said Starbucks’ Hutson, the issue will have to be settled not by corporate executives but by lawmakers.

But Fascitelli said in the face of government inaction on the state and federal levels, companies like Starbucks should take a stand and make their stores gun-free.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or On Twitter @turnbullL.