Shopping at Whole Foods in an Open-Carry State

It’s a little less stressful than it used to be, thanks to a few moms in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A Whole Foods in San Francisco.

A Whole Foods in San Francisco.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Being a no-guns establishment in an open-carry state must be maddening. You, as a store owner, can legally say no guns—you can even post signs to this effect—but the militant performance artists who cannot envision a world in which buying their vanilla-mint creamer can be achieved without brandishing an AR-47 will fight back. They will organize boycotts and protests and other intimidating displays of manliness. They will show up in droves and armed to the teeth. Resistance may begin to feel pointless.

But taking a stand is never pointless. In the debate between customers who feel intimidated by guns and customers who want to intimidate with guns, taking sides really matters. Just ask Texas. (Or Charlottesville, Virginia, where I live—but more on that a bit later.)

On Jan. 1, Texas became an open-carry state, and businesses discovered that the possibility of remaining neutral in the fight over gun rights had just disappeared. Under the new law, all of the 925,726 Texas residents with a valid concealed-weapon permit (about 4 percent of them) can now openly carry guns, so long as the weapons are secured in shoulder or belt holsters. Businesses across Texas now must grapple with the costs of allowing open carry in their stores.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of them had to take, and then publicly state, a clear position. Hospitals, correctional facilities, and some places that sell alcohol can still legally ban guns; private property owners—including stores, restaurants, and churches—also maintain this right. These establishments must give gun owners verbal notice that guns are not permitted or display signs stating rules for concealed and open carry. This is a fight nobody wanted.

As the Dallas Morning News’ Jacquielynn Floyd asked, “Did open carry backfire on Texas gun owners?” “We have lost more than we gained,” lamented a poster to the online site, which discusses concealed gun-permit laws in the state. “This has woken up the ‘anti’ crowd in a big way.” Another noted, “Places that were not concerned previously are taking sides because of the recent publicity.” Yet another put it even more bluntly last week on a different Texas gun rights forum: “The lid is off this can of worms and it will never go back … I hope the right to walk around looking like Wyatt Earp is worth it to the open carry folks because a lot of us are losing our right to concealed carry and it may cost some of us our lives for your privilege to play cowboy.”

One of the national chains that has chosen to post a sign banning guns in its Texas stores has been Austin, Texas–based Whole Foods. This makes sense, as a weapon is not required to purchase your overpriced beet greens and prison cheese, and because it takes a certain leap of branding logic to associate healthy lifestyles and smart family choices with parading around weapons that are associated with (depending upon whose statistics you read) 20 injuries to children and teenagers per day across the U.S.

But what about the Whole Foods in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia? Virginia is an open-carry state. Possibly one of the open-carry-est. Also one of the gun-deathiest.  As a result, there has been some confusion.

Last November, a friend, Latifa Kropf, encountered a man with a holstered gun in line in front of her at our local Whole Foods; Kropf alerted a manager, who told her that there is no store gun policy. Kropf wrote to a customer service representative at Whole Foods’ headquarters in Austin and was reassured that “we absolutely DO have a policy forbidding firearms in our stores—both open and concealed carry” and that management was obviously not well-versed in company policy. The Austin branch promised to rectify the misunderstanding.

Last week, several shoppers came across another customer open-carrying at the same Whole Foods while he picked out asparagus. One shopper, Susan McCulley, spoke to the manager, who explained that Virginia is an open-carry state and that, as such, customers could bring firearms into the store. Another friend, Katherine McNamara, called the local manager, who confirmed that the Charlottesville store’s policy is as follows: “We prefer that people do not carry openly, and we ask them to leave their weapons in their car.” Since Virginia is a “right to carry” state, the manager said, the store cannot exclude people carrying weapons.

This was becoming absurd. By law, even in an open-carry state, any store can exclude guns. Whole Foods claimed to exclude guns, but nobody in our local store seemed willing to enforce this rule or even post a sign stating it. And why should they? Who wants to send out the stock boy to confront a guy wielding an AR-47 next to the exotic plums?

Within a day, a whole bunch of moms I know very casually (and I didn’t know McCulley at all) were simply calling Whole Foods to say they couldn’t shop there anymore. I wrote to Whole Foods in Austin last week and was reassured that they would be enforcing the no-guns policy. And amazingly enough, in a world in which Nothing Ever Changes, it did. Within days, the local Whole Foods began to assure all customers that no guns would be allowed and that “only commissioned law enforcement officers or other authorized security personnel are permitted to have firearms on Company premises.” Wednesday, signs went up in the store that plainly state that “Whole Foods does not allow concealed or openly carried firearms on store property.” And just like that, most of the women I know started shopping there again.

Courtesy of Dahlia Lithwick

I asked McCulley why she had been willing to forego shopping at a store she loved in order to win this tiny victory. “Seeing a gun in the grocery store rattled me,” she said. “I see no place for firearms in the produce department … I’m grateful that our local store made clear that their policy is in alignment with Whole Foods Inc. It’s not an easy position to take. I’m glad I don’t have to shop somewhere else.”

This is how change will happen. A whole bunch of advocates will ask for far too much and a whole bunch of good people—at least in this instance, all women—will push back. No violence, no threats. Just reason and smart economics.

When someone is carrying a lethal weapon at a grocery store in order to prove to me that carrying a lethal weapon at a grocery store is acceptable in a civil society or will someday become acceptable in a civil society, my rational response is to feel that he is threatening me. Because open-carry activists who are denied the right to carry wherever they choose are prone to boycotts and intimidation, it is in fact absolutely rational for me to assume that the purpose of those guns is to threaten objectors with violence. The display of open weapons is a perfectly self-fulfilling threat to dissenters.

But here’s the good thing about boycotts: They can work both ways. Boycotts have a long and storied tradition of achieving civil rights victories in this country. Whole Foods clarified and enforced its national policy in an open-carry state because it makes no sense for a tiny fraction of the population to dominate the gun debate. Nobody’s definition of a polite or civil society can include the right to terrify small children. It’s not so much about standing up to an immutable gun lobby as it is about standing up for immutable and blessed civility.