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Editorial: Trump ‘joke’ was beyond reckless

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Crown Arena, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016, in Fayetteville, N.C. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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Let’s agree that it was a joke.

Let’s agree, as some Donald Trump supporters say, he was just joshing us when he said Tuesday, “Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what. That will be a horrible day, if — if — Hillary gets to put her judges in.”

So what was the point of the joke? That gun-rights zealots would take matters into their own hands to keep Hillary Clinton from appointing Supreme Court justices were she to be elected president? Exactly how are we to assume these zealots — people who own guns — would do that?

And why, exactly, is that funny?

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan called it “a joke gone bad.” Heat Street political editor Andrew Stiles called it “a casual joke.” Numerous headlines referred to it as a joke. PolitiFact said, “Some saw it as a joke about assassination.”

Many Americans are not laughing.

EDITORIAL

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For years, an irresponsible element among gun-rights activists has argued Americans need to arm themselves with powerful weapons to protect themselves from a tyrannical government. National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre has said the people have the right “to take whatever measures necessary, including force, to abolish oppressive government.” Sharron Angle, a 2010 Senate candidate from Nevada, referred to “Second Amendment remedies” for an unpopular government.

But oppression is a matter of opinion. If Hillary Clinton were to nominate a candidate for the Supreme Court that was not to the liking of those activists, would that count, in some of their minds, as tyranny?

This is not a line of thought that should be encouraged, even unintentionally. To do so is beyond reckless.

Anyone running for America’s highest office must understand that it’s not just what they say that counts, but also what others believe they meant. Misconstrued statements, especially by a president, can have enormously dangerous consequences. Allies can be estranged, foes can be encouraged. The impact of verbal errors can be devastating.

That’s why Trump’s remark was incendiary, even if he didn’t intend it to be. Too many of his followers already feel free to shout “Kill her” at his rallies. Trump has invited his followers to view the election as “rigged” should he lose. Republican congressman from New Hampshire Al Baldasaro, who has been on the campaign trail with Trump, in a radio interview said that “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”

It’s hard to point to any statement by a major candidate for U.S. president that was as reckless and dangerous as Trump’s. Try saying something like that yourself within earshot of the Secret Service and see what happens.

Chicagoans who grew up with mayors Richard J. and Richard M. Daley are used to rambling speeches and broken syntax, with sentences that start in one direction and break off to new thoughts in the middle. But Trump’s speech cannot be dismissed as confused verbiage.

Since Tuesday, Trump and his campaign have been walking back his comments, saying he was merely calling on gun-rights supporters to vote and was a victim of faulty interpretations. But his campaign’s argument that he was merely exhorting supporters of the Second Amendment to vote makes little sense.

It’s not certain Trump could come forth with an apology sufficient to quash any dangerous impulses he might already have set into motion. But at this point, he has not even tried.

Trump is feeding into a long history of implied violence. Many people who have worked on the front lines of the gun debate can tell you the unspoken threat of armed violence is never far away. One respected researcher said anonymous threats effectively discourage scientific inquiry into the causes of gun violence because “these people have guns.” Illinois legislators have said privately they have felt intimidated on occasion by individuals who own guns.

Day by day, Trump increasingly has showed he is incapable of leading a great nation in a noble direction and that, in fact, his inability to control himself and his followers places the nation in great peril.

The time is growing short for those who have not yet done so to speak out.

The risk to America is no joke.

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