A Target store.
Photograph by Alex Wong—Getty Images
By Phil Wahba
July 2, 2014

A few weeks after photos of shoppers toting semi-automatic assault rifles in the baby aisle of a Target (TGT) store created a storm of controversy on the web, the discount retailer has asked its customers not to bring firearms into its storms, even if local “open carry” laws allow it.

While Target stopped short of banning the practice, it joined such chains as Starbucks (SBUX), Chipotle (CMG) and Jack in the Box in making such a request of their customers.

For retailers and restaurants, taking any stand on the hot-button issue of gun control is fraught with risk: they can easily offend a big part of their clientele, but at the same time, the sight of rifle-toting men can unnerve other customers.

Target has found itself increasingly at the center of the controversy, especially after a loaded gun was found in the toy section of a Target in South Carolina. In recent months, members of the group Open Carry Texas have turned up armed at Target stores regularly to exercise their right to carry rifles openly in public, creating pictures that made the rounds on the internet and proved embarrassing for the company. The National Rifle Association, a gun owners rights group, criticized the tactics used by the open carry groups before backtracking in the face of a membership backlash.

In a blog post published on Wednesday, Target interim CEO John Mulligan said the company respected “protected rights” but said Target’s goal is to have a safe environment for both its customers and its staff.

“This is a complicated issue, but it boils down to a simple belief: Bringing firearms to Target creates an environment that is at odds with the family-friendly shopping and work experience we strive to create,” Mulligan wrote in the blog post.

Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder said that because this is a request and not a ban, the company had no plans to publicize its request, which it is only making via the blog, likely limiting how many customers will be aware of it.

Moms Demand Action, an advocacy group that had been severely critical of Target for allowing customers armed with firearms into its stores, praised the company on Twitter:

Other large retailers like Home Depot (HD) and Wal-Mart Stores,  (WMT) which is the single largest seller of firearms in the U.S., defer to local laws and allow customers legally permitted to carry firearms to do so when entering their stores.

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