REUTERS - Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump suggested on Tuesday that gun rights activists could act to stop his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton from nominating liberal U.S. Supreme Court justices, igniting a new firestorm of criticism just as he sought to steer clear of controversy.
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"If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks," Trump said at a rally. "Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know," he continued. The U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment guarantees a right to bear firearms.
Until Trump made the remark, the businessman seeking his first public office had been trying to rally Republican voters behind him and against Clinton, who is leading in opinion polls in the race for the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election.
Clinton's campaign called the comments "dangerous."
"A person seeking to be the president of the United States should not suggest violence in any way," it said.
When asked to clarify what Trump meant, his campaign said Trump was referring to getting supporters of the Second Amendment to rally votes for Trump in the election.
"It's called the power of unification - 2nd Amendment people have amazing spirit and are tremendously unified, which gives them great political power," the statement said.
Asked for comment, the U.S. Secret Service, which provides security details for both Trump and Clinton, said: "The Secret Service is aware of the comment."
When by day's end Trump arrived in Fayetteville, North Carolina, for another rally, he was drawing criticism on several fronts.
Michael Hayden, a former CIA director who on Monday was among 50 Republican national security experts to denounce Trump in a letter, said on CNN, "You're not just responsible for what you say. You are responsible for what people hear."
Tuesday's speech came on the heels of a discordant week on the campaign trail for Trump. He came under fire from within his party for belatedly endorsing fellow Republicans in reelection races and a prolonged clash with the parents of fallen Muslim American Army captain Humayun Khan.
On Monday, Trump had seemed to be heeding Republican advice to stick to a message of criticizing Clinton and other Democrats while putting forward economic policy proposals in a speech in Detroit.
Trump's vice presidential running mate Mike Pence, asked if he believed Trump was inciting violence toward Clinton, told NBC's Philadelphia affiliate: "Of course not. No."
But Democrats called Trump's remarks another sign of a candidate unfit for the White House.
"Don't treat this as a political misstep. It's an assassination threat, seriously upping the possibility of a national tragedy & crisis," U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, said in a tweet.
Immediately after Trump made his comment, many on social media accused him of effectively calling for Clinton's assassination. In just three hours, 2nd amendment became the top trending topic on Twitter, with more than 60,000 posts mentioning the term.
Overall sentiment on the posts was more negative than positive, at a ratio of 2.5 to 1, according to the social media analytics firm Zoomph. #ProtectHillary was also one of the top trending hashtags on Twitter.
The 50 prominent national security officials said in their letter on Monday that Trump would be "the most reckless president in American history."
"He appears to lack basic knowledge about and belief in the U.S. Constitution, U.S. laws and U.S. institutions, including religious tolerance, freedom of the press, and an independent judiciary," their statement said.