NRA magazine spread prompts backlash after controversial headline

PHOTO: Former U.S. Rep Gabrielle Giffords watches from the background as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi talks at an event to introduce the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 in the Capitol on Jan. 8, 2019.PlayBill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
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An incendiary headline placed next to a picture of prominent Democrats in a magazine produced by the National Rifle Association is causing some backlash.

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A spread in the March issue of "American Rifleman," which is available online, shows a picture of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Rep. Gabby Giffords next to the headline "Target Practice," which has some questioning the editorial motives of the gun rights group.

The photo selection is at the heart of the backlash, as the picture shows Giffords, who was shot in the head and survived an assassination attempt in 2011, alongside Pelosi when the pair were at a recent press conference about a proposed background check law.

Underneath the large headline, there is a subhead that reads “Congressional Democrats target gun owners for persecution with extreme firearm transfer bans.”

The ensuing article, written by Chris Cox, one of the gun group's most prominent leaders and the executive director of the NRA's Institute of Legislative Action, derided Democrats for pushing the background check bill during the government shutdown "rather than to ensure that the country has a functional government."

PHOTO: Chris Cox, chief lobbyist of the National Rifle Association, prepares to speak at the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action Leadership Forum during the NRA annual meeting in Dallas, May 4, 2018. Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE
Chris Cox, chief lobbyist of the National Rifle Association, prepares to speak at the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action Leadership Forum during the NRA annual meeting in Dallas, May 4, 2018.

The article introduced Pelosi as "arch anti-gunner." It also points out that the news conference was held on the anniversary of the "infamous and deplorable" 2011 shooting of Giffords, the article goes into the specifics of the shooter and how he passed a background check.

The executive director of Giffords, the former congresswoman's eponymous gun control activist group, released a statement slamming the spread.

"Fueling anger and selling fear has been one of the NRA’s most consistent tactics, and this reprehensible headline is just the latest example of their leaders' dangerous and irresponsible propaganda," Peter Ambler said in his statement.

"Evoking threats of violence should never be tolerated. Words matter. This headline should tell us all we need to know about how wildly out of touch the NRA is with its own members and how low they will stoop to advance their damaging agenda at the expense of our safety," Ambler's statement reads.

NRA spokesperson Jennifer Baker told ABC News that “this is a manufactured controversy.”

“The column was clearly focused on the gun-control legislation moving through congress and the fact that law-abiding gun owners are being targeted by anti-gun politicians. Anyone who bothers to read the column knows the assertion that this article is calling for violence is ridiculous,” Baker said in a statement to ABC News.

When questioned Baker said Cox was not aware of and did not approve the headline or the photo before it was used, and she said that neither that headline nor photo will be used going forward.

Cox’s column is also available on the NRA-ILA’s website, and while the text of the column is the same, the headline reads “What Lurks Behind ‘Universal’ Background Checks.”

PHOTO: An article from the March 2019 issue of American Rifleman magazine features a photograph of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and former Rep Gabrielle Giffords at a press conference with the headline, Target Practice. Photo: CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
An article from the March 2019 issue of "American Rifleman" magazine features a photograph of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and former Rep Gabrielle Giffords at a press conference with the headline, "Target Practice."

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, who has been calling for more gun control laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, had his own theory behind the decision to pair that photo with the headline.

"Newsflash: they know what they’re doing here," Murphy wrote in response to a tweet about the spread.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-California, went further, calling for the NRA to "face legal consequences."

"This is a call for violence by the @NRA against @GabbyGiffords, who was nearly killed by gunfire and @SpeakerPelosi, the most powerful legislator in America. The NRA should face legal consequences. But let’s put them out of business with boycotts and ballot boxes. #EnoughIsEnough," Swalwell wrote in the tweet.

That sparked a response from Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, who called Swalwell's comments an example of an attempt to promote "outrage culture."

Parkland activist David Hogg, who was at the background check news conference and stood behind Giffords at the event, tweeted about the NRA spread as well. He directed his tweet at Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, asking the politician "why do you take money from an organization that calls for the assassination of politicians simply for their political beliefs."

Rubio did not appear to publicly respond to Hogg on Twitter, nor did his office immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment.

Hogg also retweeted former Gov. Howard Dean, D-Vermont, who tweeted that "The NRA has become an alt right organization promoting violence."

The magazine article is not the first time that the intentions of the NRA's press efforts have been questioned. Last year, they prompted some ire after tweeting out a picture of an AR-15 as the national student walkout was unfolding as a part of the March for our Lives, which was held to call for action on gun control in the wake of the deadly Parkland shooting.