In its March 5 editorial, "At the Starbucks saloon," The Times criticizes the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence for launching a petition drive asking Starbucks Coffee Co. to change its policy welcoming armed patrons into its stores. The Times writes that Starbucks is merely an "innocent bystander" and that our "true foe" is the open-carry crowd.

We certainly have strong concerns about allowing individuals who are not always required to have a permit, go through testing or training or show any knowledge of guns, gun laws or gun responsibilities carrying their weapons into places frequented by families. Too many "innocent bystanders" are killed or injured each year because our weak gun laws make it too easy for dangerous people to get guns, and because too many others don't realize the risks and responsibilities of legal gun ownership.

Starbucks owns more than 8,800 coffee houses worldwide; including licensees, there are more than 16,000 locations. If the company were to have a policy that, say, resulted in tainted food and drinks that sickened its customers, we would all agree that such a threat should be communicated to the American public.

Well, there is a policy that is just as dangerous.

The decision by Starbucks to welcome guns in its restaurants where the law permits represents a public health risk. While food-borne illnesses are estimated to kill 5,000 Americans each year, more than 30,000 of us are killed annually by firearms. Guns represent a public health threat at least as great as food poisoning. Firearm fatalities are consistently ranked as one of the leading causes of death among young people in America. As Dr. David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health wrote in 2004, "Across U.S. regions and states, where there are more guns, children are at a significantly greater risk of dying."

After hearing complaints from individuals concerned about "real-life Yosemite Sams," as The Times describes them, the Brady Campaign kicked off its petition drive. Starbucks says it wants to be left alone. But imagine the outrage -- possibly even on The Times' editorial page -- were the company to offer the same response after being cited for serving food tainted by E. coli.

The Times says Starbucks is only trying to comply with state law. But state law doesn't compel Starbucks to allow guns in its stores and endanger its customers and employees. Businesses can and do establish their own policies on customer conduct, such as turning away patrons who are barefoot or loud and disruptive. Peet's Coffee & Tea and California Pizza Kitchen also comply with state law, but they have chosen to prioritize public and employee safety. Instead of defending Starbucks, The Times should praise Peet's and California Pizza Kitchen for taking a reasonable step to protect customers.

The Times accepts the reasoning by management that employees should not be put in the "potentially unsafe" position of ejecting people the editorial describes as "armed wingnuts." But isn't this an admission that the current policy is to allow potentially dangerous people with guns into its stores? Is Starbucks suggesting that the other businesses, such as California Pizza Kitchen and Peet's, are putting their employees at risk by having a no-guns policy?

The Brady Campaign is asking Starbucks management to change its policy, not employees to put themselves at risk by "tossing out" armed individuals themselves. A customer who refuses to follow the rules should be handled by police. We are not asking Starbucks to take a position on America's gun debate. We are asking it to establish a policy to protect its customers -- including gun owners and employees -- against the possibility that misused firearms carried into the stores by those The Times describes as "postmodern cowboy wannabes" could cause great harm. We are not pressuring Starbucks to take a position against anyone's beliefs.

Starbucks can stay "above the fray" of the gun debate. It cannot do so when its policies endanger its own customers and employees.

Paul Helmke is president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.