When is joking about assassination not a joke?
Some observers, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, say that GOP candidate Donald Trump was joking when he suggested that gun rights supporters would perhaps use violence against Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
The statement came at a Trump rally Tuesday in North Carolina.
"Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment," Trump said. "By the way, and if she gets to pick - 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."
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Representatives of Clinton's campaign said the statement was dangerous, and many viewers took it as raising the idea of a possible threat of violence against Clinton. There's also the reaction of a man sitting just behind Trump, whose expression of surprise and shock and then laughter was captured on video.
CNN reported Wednesday that the U.S. Secret Service has contacted the Trump campaign about the incident and had "more than one conversation" about the issue.
Trump later said he was referring to gun-rights supporters voting against Clinton, although it's clear from the statement that it refers to Clinton picking judges, which happens after a candidate wins the general election and becomes president.
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Jason Steed is a former English professor turned attorney who wrote his doctoral dissertation on humor theory in film and literature. Steed believes there could be several explanations:
-That Trump misspoke, something other public figures (such as vice president Joe Biden) have done in the past.
-That Trump was making a joke.
-That Trump was serious.
"When we are joking, we are never just joking," Steed said. "The humor we use plays a role I how we define who we are."
Steed notes that humor is a way of floating an idea that normally would sound inappropriate or hurtful. He said that a racist, or in this case, perhaps a taboo joke, serves two purposes by assimilating people that think it's funny, and simultaneously alienating those who believe it is offensive.
Then again, maybe Trump wasn't joking.
"What he said and how it was received is dangerous because it floats an idea that we would all like to think is unthinkable," Steed said. "But floats it in a way to open up the door to the unthinkable."
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