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Home Depot latest chain to get drawn into gun debate

Shoppers on their way to a Home Depot store in the suburban Chicago area, Bartlett, Illinois.Shoppers on their way to a Home Depot store in the suburban Chicago area, Bartlett, Illinois.
Shoppers on their way to a Home Depot store in the suburban Chicago area, Bartlett, Illinois.Bruce Leighty

About 150 gun owners, many carrying semi-automatic weapons, staged a rally on Saturday that started in the parking lot of a Home Depot (HD) store in North Richland Hills, Texas, according to the Dallas Morning News, making the home improvement retailer the latest restaurant chain or store to be ensnared by the fractious national debate on gun rights.

Home Depot spokesman Stephen Holmes told Fortune that the Saturday rally was not sanctioned by the retailer and that organizers moved it across the street, though he did say that customers can carry legally permitted weapons into Home Depot stores. The retailer also does not allow solicitation or organizing by third parties on its property.

That did not prevent Home Depot from receiving the scorn of numerous customers on its Facebook page, including some calls for a boycott of the chain.

The rally, staged by Open Carry Texas, a group pushing for fewer restrictions on open shotgun and rifle carry laws there, follows recent moves by gun owners in the Lone Star State and nationwide to fight what they see as encroachments on their rights: in May, about a dozen gun rights activists walked into San Antonio area outlets of Sonic and Chili’s Grill and Bar with long rifles on their backs. Sonic and Chili’s, which is a unit of Brinker International (EAT), are each reviewing their policies about guns in their stores.

With the national debate on guns hot again following the May 23 mass killing in Santa Barbara, California, national chains can easily offend a big part of their clientele if they take anything resembling a stand on this hot-button issue.

Last year, coffee chain Starbucks (SBUX) asked U.S. customers to leave their guns at home despite its policy of deferring to local gun laws, including “open carry” regulations. That came after Starbuck’s policy was interpreted by open carry advocates as signaling support from Starbucks, prompting Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a gun control advocacy group, to call for a boycott in August. A month later, CEO Howard Schultz published an open letter in several major newspapers to say “we do not want these events in our stores,” in turn, offending many gun owners.

Chipotle (CMG)and Jack in the Box are among the other chains that have asked customers not to bring firearms into their restaurants.

Still, some retailers stand to gain from the heated gun debate. The number of checks on prospective gun buyers by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a good proxy for gun sales, rose about 50 percent between 2009 and 2013, and gun sales tend to soar after a headline grabbing shooting spree on concerns such an event would spur a tightening of gun laws.

Cabela’s (CAB) and Dick’s Sporting Goods each reported lower first-quarter sales of hunting equipment— largely the result of a relative drop-off in sales after a massive surge in early 2013 in the  weeks after the Sandy Hook mass shooting.

But the two retailers, among the biggest firearms sellers in the United States, said in their most recent earnings reports that sales are trending back up again.