Starbucks Corp. and some other chain stores in the U.S. are finding themselves caught in the middle of a firearms debate, as gun-control advocates go up against a burgeoning campaign by gun owners to carry holstered pistols in public places.

The "open carry" movement, in which gun owners carry unconcealed handguns as they go about their everyday business, is loosely organized around the country but has been gaining traction in recent months. Gun-control advocates have been pushing to quash the movement, including by petitioning the Starbucks coffee chain to ban guns on its premises.

Businesses have the final say on their property. But the ones that don't opt to ban guns—such as Starbucks—have become parade grounds of sorts for open-carry advocates.

Starbucks on Wednesday, while bemoaning being thrust into the debate, defended its long-standing policy of complying with state open-carry weapons laws, in part by stating that its baristas, or "partners," could be harmed if the stores were to ban guns. The chain said that in the 43 states where open carry is legal, it has about 4,970 company-operated stores.

The company added: "The political, policy and legal debates around these issues belong in the legislatures and courts, not in our stores."

In 29 states, it's legal to openly carry a loaded handgun, without any form of government permission. Another 13 allow an unconcealed loaded handgun with a carry permit, according to opencarry.org, which is a loosely organized Web forum for the movement.

In California, where it's legal to carry a gun openly without a license in most places as long as it's unloaded, growing numbers of armed people have been turning up at Starbucks, restaurants, and retailers, with handguns holstered to their belts to protest what they contend are unfair limits on permits to carry a concealed weapon.

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