Diners at the Esquire Club in Madison, Wisconsin, may be packing heat, but owner John Kavanaugh has no intention of restricting handgun-toting customers from entering his 300-seat establishment.

Editor’s Note: Written prior to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, we invite you to share comments on the issue of gun control.

In 2011, Wisconsin became the latest state to adopt right to carry legislation. Carrying rights are now a reality in every state except Illinois, while only six states—Maine, Louisiana, North Dakota, Illinois, and both Carolinas—claim a complete ban on guns in restaurants. 

While each state’s legislation possesses its own language and nuance, from licensing requirements to open or concealed carry permits, many states grant restaurant operators the ability to “post” their establishment—that is, posting a sign at the door prohibiting guns.

In response, various local websites around the country have popped up identifying restaurants that post, some lauding the decision—“Eat in Peace” chimes one Tennessee-based site—and others chiding the decision. One Michigan site, in fact, terms posting “discriminatory.”

For many operators across the country, carrying rights spark a range of considerations and challenges, including issues around liability, unsettled customers, and the fallout from a perceived political stance—all factors that steer operator decisions.

Largely propelled by practical considerations, Kavanaugh decided early that he would not post the Esquire Club.

“If someone comes in to rob me, I would like them to realize that they might not be the only one with a gun,” Kavanaugh says.

Meanwhile, some operators are concerned with perception, fearing that posting would spur political conflict or consternation.

Arizona restaurateur Jeff Flancer, who owns a pair of eateries in the Phoenix area, has never posted at his restaurants.

“Many people don’t even think about [gun-carrying rights] until they see something about it, so why bring attention to it?” Flancer says.

Yet, many others have elected to post, often guided by a desire to avoid the potential repercussions from a gun-related incident on their property.

Scott Heimlich, owner of the Barcelona restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, says he posted his establishment immediately after Ohio’s legislature passed a 2011 bill allowing more than 60,000 of the state’s existing concealed carry licensees to bring their guns into alcohol-serving establishments. In many states, including Ohio, it remains the individual guest’s responsibility to refrain from drinking alcohol while carrying a firearm—an operational quagmire in concealed carry states.

“If I don’t need to carry a gun in my own establishment because I believe it’s a safe and welcome environment, then I’m not sure my guests need to carry a gun either,” says Heimlich, a self-described “farm boy” who is not “anti-gun.”

As an officer with the Central Ohio Restaurant Association, Heimlich says he fielded many questions from fellow restaurateurs about liability with Ohio’s revised law. Given the choice to post or not, he continues urging operators to make a personal business decision that weighs both sides as well as customer expectations.

“Do your homework, research the local rules, and seek outside advice from attorneys, insurance reps, and fellow restaurateurs,” Heimlich says. “Most importantly, consider what your guests would want.”

(The National Rifle Association publishes gun laws on its website, www.nraila.org, with a map detailing "right to carry in restaurants" by state.)

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