It’s not a ban — it’s a request.

Target Corp., which has found itself in the cross hairs of a heated gun debate in recent weeks, sought to mollify both sides Wednesday by asking customers not to bring firearms into its stores.

“Our approach has always been to follow local laws, and of course, we will continue to do so,” John Mulligan, Target’s interim CEO, said in a statement posted to the company’s blog. “But starting today, we will also respectfully request that guests not bring firearms to Target, even in communities where it is permitted by law.”

Over the past month, the Minneapolis-based retailer has found itself mired in a gun rights debate that has largely played out over social media. After a series of provocative pictures of gun-rights activists carrying rifles in Targets went viral, a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America began lobbying the retailer to crack down.

Target initially said it would not change policy in a way that would restrict customers from openly carrying firearms. Instead, the company said it would follow local laws on the issue.

But the mom’s group, which is funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, continued to pressure Target and collected 400,000 signatures demanding the company prohibit customers from openly carrying firearms in its stores. The group noted that many moms and families shop at Target and warned the retailer that its members would shop elsewhere until it changed its policy.

Shannon Watts, founder of the mom’s group, said Wednesday that she was ecstatic over Target’s decision.

“It was above and beyond what we were asking,” she said, noting that her group was raising the issue of openly carried weapons, not concealed weapons. “They could have said we don’t allow open carry. But they said we don’t want firearms.”

Mulligan said Target respects people’s protected rights, but the issue boils down to this: “Bringing firearms to Target creates an environment that is at odds with the family-friendly shopping and work experience we strive to create.”

Still, Target won’t post signs at its doors asking customers not to bring guns inside, said Molly Snyder, a Target spokeswoman.

“It is not a ban,” she said. “There is no prohibition.”

Some gun-rights advocates embraced that distinction as a victory.

“It was a very shrewd move on Target’s part because they were tired of being beat up on social media by a very well-funded PR campaign,” said Andrew Rothman, president of St. Paul-based Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance. “The Bloomberg organization tried to bully Target into taking a political stance. But those demands from New York City were not answered. This is a request.”

Carol Spieckerman, president of retail consulting firm Newmarketbuilders, said Target used “soft language” in search of a diplomatic solution. “On the surface, it would seem to be a safe and smart decision,” she said. “It’s not without precedent.”

Last year, Starbucks asked customers to not bring guns into its stores. Chipotle did the same in May in the face of similar pressure.

Spieckerman wondered whether the open-carry activists would let the issue rest or try to fan the flames by continuing to take firearms into Targets. “They could easily try to turn around and push the limits of that respectful request,” she said, noting that it could put Target employees in an awkward position.

While many states allow people to carry guns if they have the proper permit, property owners have the right to restrict them. The Mall of America, for example, bans guns.

Brian Yarbrough, a retail analyst with Edward Jones, noted that many office buildings also prohibit guns inside their buildings.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see other retailer follow suit after Target,” he said. “You do wonder if this is going to be a trend.”

But Rothman of the gun owners alliance noted that some gun-rights supporters may not be happy with Target’s statement and will have to decide whether they want to continue shopping there.

“They might choose to do more of their shopping at Wal-Mart,” he said.