It would be an understatement to say that the tactics of gun rights activists have been backfiring of late. The showdown has taken place foremost in Texas, where in recent months groups such as Open Carry Texas have conducted provocative demonstrations in which armed men exercise their right under state law to carry semi-automatic rifles in public. No fewer than five national food and beverage chains have now told them to get rid of their guns or get lost, including Starbucks, Wendy’s, Applebees, Jack in the Box, and Chipotle.
And now Chili's Grill & Bar and Sonic have effectively joined the list: Two videos posted on YouTube on May 19 by the San Antonio chapter of Open Carry Texas—since removed from public view but obtained by Mother Jones—show its armed members being refused service at both restaurants. The two companies have not made official statements on open carry but have since indicated that they are reviewing their policies. [See updates below.] From the nervous and angry reactions of some patrons to comments from some of the gun activists themselves, it's not difficult to see why these spectacles haven't been winning many people over.
When a young woman approaches the group in Chili's and expresses her dismay, a guy with an assault rifle strapped across his back offers her a flyer. "Um actually, there's children here," she replies, "and you're a dumbass." As she walks away one member of the group comments mockingly, "Yes, I'm a dumbass," and then says of her, "must be Moms Demand Action," referring to the national gun reform group.
Open Carry Texas' hostility toward Moms Demand Action, which has pressured corporations over the demonstrations using social-media campaigns, has been displayed in more disturbing ways. As I detailed in a recent investigation, members of Open Carry Texas have been involved in harassment, bullying, and degradation of women.
In the Sonic video, as the thwarted gun group lingers in an adjacent parking lot, one member says: "I just wish I had my kids in there when that one dumb chick come up and started rattin' her mouth."
Though probably few if any patrons regularly worry about their personal safety as they order Bacon Ranch Quesadillas or double cheeseburgers and shakes, gun activists in both videos comment about the apparent danger of not allowing open carrying on the premises. One says he told his daughter, "It's not safe to be here—we gotta go," while another comments, "This Chili's is no longer the safest Chili's to eat at."
Open Carry Texas and other gun groups, whose common goal is legalizing the open carrying of handguns in their state, evidently have concluded that none of this is helping their cause. On Friday, four of the groups released a joint statement asking supporters to retreat from such tactics. "We have decided the prudent path, to further our goals, is to immediately cease taking long guns into corporate businesses unless invited," the statement said.
For open carrying going forward, their new "unified protocol and general policy" advises supporters to avoid corporate businesses altogether, and not to post pictures if they do get permission and decide to go in. "If at all possible," it says, "keep to local small businesses that are 2A friendly."
It remains to be seen whether the rank and file will stand down. As one Texas commentator focused on open carry noted about the move: "As expected there are those who object to this new policy because they feel it is a form of surrender."
Update May 27, 2014, 6:15 p.m. EDT: Patric Lenow, VP of media relations at Sonic, told Mother Jones: "There is no [gun] policy at this point; we've traditionally relied on local and state laws. We see the situation has changed and there's new tactics being employed and businesses are being pulled into this debate. That's really what prompts the need to consider it." Lenow did not say specifically when the company would reach a decision on a gun policy, but said that it would be "in the month of June, certainly."
Update 2, May 28, 2014, 1:45 p.m. EDT: A spokesperson for Brinker International, the corporate parent of Chili's, told Mother Jones: "Given the recent attention to open carry laws, we continue to evaluate [our] policy to ensure we provide a safe environment for our guests and team members." Moreover, the activists who brought their weapons into Chili's were pushing the boundaries of state law and putting the restaurant in jeopardy: "Long guns are not permitted in our restaurants based on regulation from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission," the spokesperson said, "which prohibits a business that is licensed to sell or serve alcoholic beverages from allowing shotguns or rifles into the building."
According to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission: "If an individual does choose to carry a rifle or shotgun into a TABC-licensed business, the individual is placing the business owner's TABC license at risk....a business owner may ask a patron to leave the premises. If the patron refuses, that individual may be subject to criminal trespassing charges under Texas Penal Code Section 30.05."
Update 3, May 30, 2014, 4:15 p.m. EDT: Both Sonic and Brinker International/Chili's have now announced official positions on the issue: A Sonic spokesperson said the company is "asking that customers refrain from bringing guns onto our patios or into our indoor dining areas." A Brinker International/Chili's spokesperson said, "We recognize that the open carry of firearms in restaurants creates an uncomfortable atmosphere and is not permitted under many local liquor laws. So, we kindly ask that guests refrain from openly carrying firearms into our restaurants and we will continue to follow state and local laws on this issue."
Additional reporting contributed by Julia Lurie.