The debate over gun rights has spilled into the grocery aisles in a big way: Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America has taken aim at Kroger.
The activist group, which has successfully taken on Target, Starbucks and other national retailers, launched a campaign last month to get Kroger, the nation's largest grocery store chain with almost $100 billion in sales and revenue, to ask customers not to openly carry weapons in its 2,640 stores.
Kroger issued this statement in response: "The safety of our customers and associates is one of our most important company values. Millions of customers are present in our busy grocery stores every day, and we don't want to put our associates in a position of having to confront customers or enforce gun laws.
"That is why our long-standing policy on this issue is to follow state and local laws and to urge customers to be respectful of others while shopping to feed their families. We know that our customers are passionate on both sides of this issue, and we trust them to be responsible in our stores."
A petition drive begun on Aug. 18 has gathered more than 128,000 signatures, according to Pam Mangas, a Lexington resident who is spokeswoman for the Kentucky chapter.
"Our moms are very driven, very determined to encourage Kroger to establish a gun policy that keeps families safe from gun violence while we shop," Mangas said.
Now the group has targeted Kroger's bottom line: last weekend, the group began what it calls a "Mom-cott," asking supporters to shop elsewhere on weekends and post receipts on social media with the hashtag #groceriesnotguns.
This week the MDA campaign took out full page ads in USA TODAY and newspapers in Nashville, Houston, Detroit, Columbus and Cincinnati, where Kroger has its headquarters, with photos such as one comparing two potential customers — one armed with a semi-automatic rifle and the other a child with an ice cream cone, a teen with a skateboard or a man with no shirt — and asking which one isn't welcome at Kroger.
"If you look at our series, you'll how ludicrous it is that Kroger would ban a child with an ice cream cone but allow someone with a fully loaded semi-automatic weapon," Mangas said.
There have been 16 shootings or threats of gun violence in Kroger stores, including in Arizona, Georgia, Tennessee and Ohio, she said.
Moms Demand Action began a similar campaign earlier this summer against Target after gun supporters carrying loaded weapons began gathering in Target stores to demonstrate support for open-carry laws.
The Cincinnati Enquirer's editorial board has taken up the cause, writing Thursday that "absent a common-sense approach from elected leaders that preserves both public decorum and personal rights, Kroger might do well to follow the Starbucks/Target model: Tuck that gun inside your coat, and stop scaring people who are just running in for milk and diapers."
In July, Target changed its position — but not its policy — to ask customers to not bring firearms into its stores, saying, "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."
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said at the time that "moms everywhere were horrified to see images of people carrying loaded assault rifles down the same aisles where we shop for diapers and toys. Like Chipotle, Starbucks, Facebook, Jack in the Box, Sonic, and Chili's, Target recognized that moms are a powerful customer base and political force, and you can respect the Second Amendment and the safety of customers at the same time."
It is legal to openly carry handguns and long guns in public in Kentucky, said John Pierce, co-founder of OpenCarry.org and a Virginia attorney who often visits Kentucky and brings his gun. His group advocates for the open carrying of holstered handguns; it doesn't oppose opening carrying long guns, such as semi-automatic rifles, but Pierce said it is more difficult to ensure safety of those, particularly during other activities, including grocery shopping.
"Moms Demand Action are using this as a wedge issue ... going store to store, demanding the stores ban open-carry. It isn't a stretch to say they'd like to see it go away everywhere," Pierce said Friday.
They are using photos of semi-automatic rifles to "convince the public that is 'open carry,'" he said. "But 99 percent of people who go into Kroger every day open-carrying are carrying properly holstered handguns."
What's alarming about that, Mangas said, is that, unlike those who have concealed weapon permits, open-carriers might not have passed background checks, are not licensed and might not have had any gun training.
Gun supporters have criticized MDA; on OpenCarry.org forums, gun supporters applauded Kroger's statement. Several said they openly carry weapons, including semi-automatic rifles, when they shop. And they post the pictures online to prove it.
Mangas, with Moms Demand Action, said she thinks that's common.
"They're out there," she said. "I have personally witnessed two instances of open-carry in the last six months. ... People who open-carry, you just don't know. There's no way to tell if that guy is a good guy or a bad guy."
In response to that statement, Pierce said: "If someone has (the gun) in their hand, in the deployed position, stalking through the store, they are committing the crime of brandishing, ... and Kroger banning open-carry would do nothing to prevent that. ... If they see someone with a slung long gun, they should rest assured they are looking at someone who is shopping."