The pictures are provocative: Gun-rights activists in Texas with rifles slung over their shoulders standing in the baby aisle of a Target store, with the company's trademark red bull's-eye in the background. Now a gun-control advocacy group is holding up these images to push the Minneapolis-based retailer to prohibit customers from openly carrying guns into all of its stores.

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America began taking to social media on Tuesday to publicize its campaign against openly carried firearms using the hashtag #OffTarget. By midday Wednesday, its online petition calling for a ban had garnered more than 10,000 ­signatures.

"Target is an important place moms go with their kids," said Erika Soto Lamb, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group. "If she sees someone walking down the aisle with a gun, it's impossible for her to know if they are the good guys or the bad guys — if it's a political demonstration or if they should run for cover. That's not something we should have to consider when we go on our weekly shopping trips."

The group, formed after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, said "gun extremists" have been holding demonstrations openly carrying firearms in Target stores in Texas, Alabama, Ohio, North Carolina, Washington, Wisconsin and Virginia. It added that the pictures circulating on the Internet had been disseminated through social media by Open Carry Texas, a group that aims to normalize openly carrying weapons.

Despite the controversial photos, Target said it is sticking by its current policies and won't institute an overall open-carry ban. Molly Snyder, a Target spokeswoman, said the ­company follows state and federal laws when it comes to open carry laws, and added that Target does not sell firearms or ammunition in its stores.

"At Target, the safety and security of our guests and team members is our highest priority," she wrote in an e-mail.

The issue puts Target in a particularly tough situation because of the other issues it is facing, said Carol Spieckerman, president of retail consulting firm Newmarketbuilders. Target has been dealing with continuing fallout from last year's data breach, a floundering expansion into Canada and sluggish sales at its U.S. stores.

"It's unfortunate timing for Target to be attached to this issue right now," she said. "And they're somewhat between a rock and a hard place."

If the company takes a stand, that can court controversy, but if it doesn't, it could be another example of the retailer waiting too long to react, she said.

In recent weeks, several companies have asked customers to refrain from carrying guns onto their premises after similar gun demonstrations were staged inside their stores.

Last year, Starbucks asked customers to not carry guns into its shops, though it did not outright ban them. And in May, Chipotle said firearms are not welcome at its restaurants after photos from a gun-rights group at a Dallas-area restaurant went viral.

A majority of states, including Minnesota, allow legal gun owners to openly carry weapons in public places, but the nuances vary by state. For example, some states allow people to openly carry a handgun, but not a long gun, and vice versa.

Pliny Gale, a spokesman for Open Carry Texas, tried to distance the group from some of those photos on Wednesday, noting that some of the pictures had been taken several months ago and that some of the people in the photos were part of another open-carry advocacy group.

Gale added that the group has recently adopted a policy against carrying rifles and shotguns into businesses and that any pictures within stores are by members doing so on their own.

Last week, the National Rifle Association posted a story online that said Open Carry Texas' demonstrations inside stores were "downright weird," but one of the group's executives backtracked and apologized for the comment this week.

Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113