Guacamole in the gun sights

The logic of political polarization is relentless. Once you commit yourself to exploiting political or cultural wedges, where does it lead?

To Chipotle, apparently.

That’s the Mexican restaurant chain where gun-rights activists this week made their latest stand, bringing semi-automatic long guns — a.k.a. “assault weapons” — into one of the chain’s restaurants in Dallas. Citing “anxiety and discomfort” among customers, the chain requested that, henceforth, the gun-rights folks find some other way to amuse themselves.

Like previous demonstrations of gun power at Starbucks and other venues, the episode was only marginally about guns. Lugging your rifle around between condiments and customers isn’t remotely convenient, let alone sensible. (We’ll leave “courteous” and “respectful of others” out of the discussion altogether.)

The lengths to which activists go to pretend otherwise can be comic.

Open Carry Texas founder C.J. Grisham told Forbes that this past weekend’s activity was not a demonstration, but simply a meal following an event.

“We don’t go there just to carry guns into a restaurant,” he said. “We always let the manager know we’re coming. We try very hard to make people feel comfortable.”

Grisham said his group’s policy is to send an unarmed person into a restaurant to seek permission to dine and to warn staff and customers in advance.

“We’re peaceful, we’re looking for a place to eat, but we have guns,” he said. “If we’re not welcome, we’re not going to spend money there.”

Pretending that obviously abnormal behavior is perfectly routine — it was just a meal following an event! — while taking extra precautions not to freak out everybody is becoming a hallmark of the open-carry movement.

The real purpose of these actions is evident in Grisham’s last line: “If we’re not welcome, we’re not going to spend money there.”

Right-wing politics has become less and less about winning important arguments and national majorities and more and more about taking the ball and going home.

Conservatives have realized an aggressive wish list of real and symbolic actions in the reddest states, while heaving one monkey wrench after another into the federal machinery in Washington. The goal is not victory but a secure retreat, protected from the uncomfortable realities of 21st century America — Obama and his-care, the emerging nonwhite majority and a culture that simply refuses to reverse course.

Bringing weapons of war to the local coffee shop or Mexican fast-food joint isn’t about gun rights. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more disastrous strategy for winning converts than sending a bunch of strange men to a lunch spot and having them frighten the devil out of anyone dropping by for a burrito. Open Carry Texas claimed a moral victory of sorts this month when the group secured a pronouncement from Jack in the Box that frightened company employees did not, in fact, “seek refuge in the freezer” upon encountering hungry open-carry advocates armed to the teeth. (See, they weren’t that scared.)

While all this effort is unlikely to produce converts to the open-carry cause, it does force business proprietors — and basically everyone else — to choose sides. In other words, it polarizes.

“If we’re not welcome, we’re not going to spend money there.”

Like Starbucks, Chipotle chose — at gunpoint — to align itself with contemporary American culture, not an imagined one of freedom-loving frontier days. Even Chick-fil-A, a one-time cultural hero on the right, seems to be moving in the same direction.

The wave of open-carry gun demonstrations is not so much an assertion of rights as militarized renditions of “Which Side Are You On?” The gun guys have now forced Starbucks and Chipotle to show their colors. There will be no caramel Frappuccinos or burrito bowls behind the barricades.

Francis Wilkinson writes for Bloomberg News.

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