NEW YORK - AUGUST 21: A couple has iced coffee drinks at a Starbucks Coffee shop in lower Manhattan August 21, 2009 in New York City. Starbucks, America's dominant coffeehouse chain, is changing some of its prices, raising them for elaborate specialty drinks and cutting prices for some others. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
Dale Welch recently walked into a Starbucks in Virginia, handgun strapped to his waist, and ordered a banana Frappuccino with a cinnamon bun. He says the firearm drew a double-take from at least one customer, but not a peep from the baristas.
Welch's foray into the coffeehouse was part of an effort by some gun owners to exercise and advertise their rights in states that allow people to openly carry firearms.
Just last weekend a group with the same purpose gathered outside a Starbucks in Santana Row in San Jose.
Even in some "open carry" states, businesses are allowed to ban guns in their stores. And some have, creating political confrontations with gun owners. But Starbucks, the largest chain targeted, has refused to take the bait, saying in a statement this month that it follows state and local laws and has its own safety measures in its stores.
"Starbucks is a special target because it's from the hippie West Coast, and a lot of dedicated consumers who pay $4 for coffee have expectations that Starbucks would ban guns. And here they aren't," said John Bruce, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi who is an expert in gun policy.
Welch, a 71-year-old retired property manager who lives in Richmond, Va., doesn't see any reason why he shouldn't bear arms while he gets caffeinated.
"I don't know of anybody who would provide me with defense other than myself, so I routinely as a way of life carry a weapon -- and that extends to my coffee shops," he said.
The fight for retailers heated up in early January when gun enthusiasts in northern California began walking into Starbucks and other businesses to test state laws that allow gun owners to carry weapons openly in public places. As it spread to other states, gun control groups quickly complained about the parade of firearms in local stores.
Some were spontaneous, with just one or two gun owners walking into a store. Others were organized parades of dozens of gun owners walking into restaurants with their firearms proudly at their sides.
In one case, about 100 activists bearing arms had planned to go to a California Pizza Kitchen in the East Bay Walnut Creek, but after it became clear they weren't welcome they went to another restaurant. That chain and Peet's Coffee & Tea are among the businesses that have banned customers with guns.
Just as shops can deny service to barefoot customers, restaurants and stores in some states can declare their premises gun-free zones.
The advocacy group OpenCarry.org, a leading group encouraging the demonstrations, applauded Starbucks in a statement for "deciding not to discriminate against lawful gun carriers."
"Starbucks is seen as a responsible corporation and they're seen as a very progressive corporation, and this policy is very much in keeping with that," said John Pierce, co-founder of OpenCarry.org. "If you're going to support individual rights, you have to support them all. I applaud them, and I've gone out of my way personally to let every manager of every Starbucks I pass know that."
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has responded by circulating a petition that soon attracted 26,000 signatures demanding that Starbucks "offer espresso shots, not gunshots" and declare its coffeehouses "gun-free zones."
Gun control advocates hope the coffeehouse firearms displays end up aggravating more people than they inspire.
"If you want to dress up and go out and make a little political theater by frightening children in the local Starbucks, if that's what you want to spend your energy on, go right ahead," said Peter Hamm, a spokesman for the Brady campaign. "But going out and wearing a gun on your belt to show the world you're allowed to is a little juvenile."
The coffeehouse debate has been particularly poignant for gun-control advocates in Washington state, where four uniformed police officers were shot and killed while working on their laptops at a suburban coffeehouse. The shooter later died in a gun battle with police.
Ralph Fascitelli of Washington Ceasefire, an advocacy group that seeks to reduce gun violence, said allowing guns in coffeehouses robs residents of "societal sanctuaries."
"People go to Starbucks for an escape, just so they can get peace," Fascitelli said. "But people walk in with open-carry guns and it destroys the tranquility."
Gun control advocates have been on the defensive. Their opponents have trumpeted fears that gun rights would erode under a Democrat-led White House and Congress, but President Barack Obama and his top allies have largely been silent on issues such as reviving an assault weapons ban or strengthening background checks at gun shows.
Gun rights groups are looking to build on a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban, and cheered legislation that took effect Monday allowing licensed gun owners to bring firearms into national parks. Obama signed that legislation as part of a broader bill.
Legislators in Montana and Tennessee, meanwhile, have passed measures seeking to exempt guns made and kept in-state from national gun control laws. And state lawmakers elsewhere are considering legislation that would give residents more leeway to carry concealed weapons without permits.
Observers say the gun rights movement is using the Starbucks campaign to add momentum and energize its supporters.
"They're trying to change the culture with this broader notion of gun rights," said Clyde Wilcox, a Georgetown University government professor who has written a book on the politics of gun control. "I think they are pressing the notion that they've got a rout going, so why not just get what they can while they're ahead?"