Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) escorts former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords following the introduction of bipartisan universal background check legislation at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Next to a photo of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and former Arizona lawmaker Gabrielle Giffords were the words “Target Practice.”

It was the headline of a story in the National Rifle Association’s American Rifleman magazine, where the author, chief NRA lobbyist Chris W. Cox, criticized newly introduced bipartisan universal background-check legislation. But in the eyes of others, the headline and accompanying photo of Pelosi and Giffords, who was shot in the head in Tucson in 2011, said more than the article did.

Some claimed the headline was an intentional attempt to incite violence against the politicians.

“The NRA’s words here are clear,” tweeted Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). “They may pretend that the article is about something different. But everyone can see what is being suggested against [Pelosi and Giffords]. Time to shut them down with our voices and votes.”

A firestorm erupted over the weekend after photos of the spread in the magazine’s March edition began circulating on social media, inviting scorn from parents of children killed in the Parkland mass shooting as well as Democratic lawmakers. Some, including Swalwell, called for legal consequences against the NRA for its “Target Practice” headline, while other gun-rights supporters insisted that critics were reading too much into the words.

Democrats and others accused the NRA of intentionally seeking to incite violence against Pelosi and Giffords, seen over her shoulder. (Screenshot/American Rifleman magazine) ((Screenshot/American Rifleman magazine)/(Screenshot/American Rifleman magazine))

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) was among those who pushed back against critics, specifically Swalwell, who he suggested had stirred up fake outrage.

“How can you claim this?” he said in response to the California congressman. “Are you deliberately lying or did you just not read it? The article is about legislation targeting gun owners, not the NRA targeting Democrats. If your goal is to ensure that ‘outrage culture’ is alive and well, continuing to divide us, congrats.”

Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the NRA-Institute for Legislative Action, called the controversy “manufactured” in a statement to The Washington Post. She acknowledged that the NRA-ILA ran a different photo and headline in the online version of the article, titled, “What Lurks Behind ‘Universal’ Background Checks,” and that the ILA’s executive director, Cox, did not approve the headline and photo in American Rifleman. It will not be used going forward, she said.

“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,” Baker said. “Anyone who bothers to read the column knows the assertion that the column is calling for violence is ridiculous.”

American Rifleman is the NRA’s official publication, with more than 2 million print and online readers, according to its media kit.

The backlash began Friday evening after Jennifer Bendery, a politics reporter at HuffPost, tweeted images of the spread, and it accelerated after parents of teenagers killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School condemned the image as well, equating it to domestic terrorism.

“Who are you trying to intimidate @NRA?” wrote Manuel Oliver, who lost his son, Joaquin Oliver, in the shooting. “By now, you should know that we don’t give a [expletive] about your efforts to terrorize a nation. This ‘nazi style’ propaganda only shows your low power over society.”

Fred Guttenberg, who lost his daughter Jaime in the Parkland massacre, called on NRA members to renounce their membership over the spread.

“Magazine covers and titles are highly thought out,” he wrote on Twitter. “People get paid a lot of money on decisions like this. The decision in NRA magazine to have an article titled Target Practice next to photo of Pelosi and Giffords is intentional. This is incitement of violence and not OK!”

He continued: “For those who have ever challenged my assertion that the current NRA leadership uses terror tactics, look no further.”

The controversy comes amid heightened sensitivity toward perceived threats against lawmakers, journalists and other public figures in recent months. On Thursday, Roger Stone was forced to apologize in federal court, the day after he posted an image of Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who is overseeing his obstruction of justice case, with what appeared to be crosshairs visible just over her shoulder. A Coast Guard lieutenant was arrested on Feb. 15 and later accused by prosecutors of plotting a terrorist attack after an arsenal of guns and a hit list targeting politicians and journalists and bombmaking materials were found in his possession. And last year, a man whose white van featured images of Democrats with targets on their faces was arrested after sending pipe bombs to prominent lawmakers and to CNN.

“This is only slightly more sophisticated than what Roger Stone did last week,” John Iadarola, a liberal pundit and online talk show host, said of the American Rifleman spread on Saturday.

Democrats Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), who is running for president, and Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.) were also among the lawmakers to condemn the spread.

Pelosi has not chimed in, but her daughter Christine Pelosi called the NRA’s magazine spread “criminal” on Sunday.

“We must condemn the NRA’s intentional, outrageous criminal incitement,” she wrote on Twitter. “We cannot allow this hate speech to stop common sense gun violence prevention such as #HR8.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced House Resolution 8, or the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, on Jan. 8, the anniversary of the day Giffords, then a Democratic congresswoman, was shot in the head in Tucson at an event for her constituents. The gunman fatally shot six others.

The bill would require universal background checks on all gun sales and most gun transfers, including among private sellers.

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