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Starbucks, Guns, and Property Rights

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The controversy over guns and Starbucks provides us with an opportunity to understand the relationship between gun rights and property rights.

The gun-control crowd is upset with Starbucks because the chain is permitting people to openly carry firearms into its stores. They say that this is carrying the right to keep and bear arms too far.

On the other hand, some gun-rights advocates are claiming that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of people to keep and bear arms in Starbucks.

As a private business, Starbucks has the right to operate its business any way it sees fit. If it wants to permit people to bring weapons into the store, that is its right. That’s what private ownership entails.

By the same token, Starbucks has the right to ban its customers from bringing guns into its stores. That’s what private ownership also entails.

If Starbucks changes its policy to no longer permit people to bring guns into its stores, it hasn’t violated the rights of any gun owner. Instead, it has exercised its right to run its own stores in the manner it sees fit. No one, including gun owners, has a right to impose his views on Starbucks.

Of course, customers have the right to take their business elsewhere if they disagree with Starbucks’ policy.

If the gun-control crowd decides to boycott Starbucks because it is permitting people with guns into the store, the gun-control crowd has not violated anybody’s rights in their boycott decision, including the rights of Starbucks and gun owners.

On the other hand, if Starbucks changes its policy and prohibits guns in its stores, the gun-rights crowd is perfectly free to boycott Starbucks and take its business elsewhere.

Thus, ultimately human rights are rooted in property rights.

Here’s another example. There is a famous line issued by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in the case of Schenck v. U.S.: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”

Actually, however, Holmes’s analysis is misapplied. Issues of free speech, like gun rights, are rooted in property rights.

For example, consider a newspaper that publishes nothing but critiques of socialism. Socialists complain that their free-speech rights are being infringed upon because the newspaper won’t publish their perspectives too. But the socialists are wrong. The newspaper is not violating their rights to free speech by refusing to publish their socialist perspectives. Instead, it is simply exercising its right to run its private business any way it wants. Of course, the socialists are free to boycott the newspaper and also to go out and form their own newspaper.

By the same token, a movie theater has the right to operate its business the way it wants. The reason that a customer isn’t free to falsely cry fire in the theater isn’t because there are “reasonable” limits to free speech, as Holmes implied, but because the policy of the theater owner is to prohibit customers from disturbing the peace of the other customers, which obviously would happen with a fraudulent cry of “Fire!” While customers are free to boycott theaters, they do not have the right to violate the policies of the theater owner.

But suppose, just hypothetically speaking, a theater owner was displaying a raucous type of rock-and-roll movie and announced that during that particular movie, customers could make as much noise as they wanted and scream whatever they wished, no matter how false, including “Fire!” The theater owner would be perfectly within his rights to do so. It’s his theater. If customers didn’t want to attend that particular movie and put up with people screaming, yelling, cutting up, and falsely yelling “Fire!” it would be within their rights to boycott the movie.

Finally, it’s important that we keep in mind that the Bill of Rights consists of restrictions on federal power, not on the use of private property. Thus while the First Amendment prohibits federal officials from enacting laws or engaging in conduct that infringes on such fundamental rights as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press, it does not prevent private owners from using their property the way they want. The same holds true for the right to keep and bear arms guaranteed by the Second Amendment.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.