WILMINGTON, N.C. >> Donald Trump said Tuesday that Second Amendment advocates might find a way to stop Hillary Clinton from rolling back gun rights if she's elected, setting off a political firestorm as Democrats quickly accused him of encouraging violence against his opponent.
Speaking at a rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, the Republican nominee said incorrectly his general election opponent wants to "abolish, essentially, the Second Amendment."
He continued: "By the way, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know."
Trump did not elaborate on his meaning. But within minutes, Clinton's campaign and an outside group backing her candidacy denounced the celebrity businessman's remarks as an attempt to incite violence.
"This is simple — what Trump is saying is dangerous," said Robby Mook, Clinton's campaign manager. "A person seeking to be the president of the United States should not suggest violence in any way."
The pro-Clinton group Priorities USA blasted out an email with the subject line: "Donald Trump Just Suggested That Someone Shoot Hillary Clinton."
The Trump campaign was equally quick to dispute that interpretation of his remarks, saying he was simply touting the "amazing spirit" of Second Amendment supporters.
"It's called the power of unification — Second Amendment people have amazing spirit and are tremendously unified, which gives them great political power," said Jason Miller, Trump's senior communications adviser. "And this year, they will be voting in record numbers, and it won't be for Hillary Clinton, it will be for Donald Trump."
Catherine Milhoan, a spokeswoman for the Secret Service, said, "We are aware of his comments." She declined to answer any additional questions about Trump's remarks.
The Second Amendment provides a constitutional right to citizens to own firearms. Clinton supports some new restrictions on gun ownership, but does not advocate overturning the amendment.
The GOP candidate's distortion of Clinton's position on the Second Amendment and his comments Tuesday prove "how dangerous Trump really is," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
"What Donald Trump said today is repulsive, literally using the Second Amendment as cover to encourage people to kill someone with whom they disagree," said Gross, whose group is named for James Brady, a White House press secretary wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
Trump's remarks immediately set off a firestorm of criticism on social media and threatened to upstage discussion of his economic policy speech the day before and his swing through the key battleground state of North Carolina.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat and a leading advocate for stronger gun safety laws, called Trump's comments "disgusting and embarrassing and sad."
"This isn't play," Murphy wrote on Twitter. "Unstable people with powerful guns and an unhinged hatred for Hillary are listening to you, @realDonaldTrump."
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the liberal Democrat who has tangled frequently with Trump online, said on Twitter that Trump "makes death threats because he's a pathetic coward who can't handle the fact that he's losing to a girl."
The National Rifle Association, the powerful pro-gun lobby that has endorsed Trump, posted a pair of tweets in support of the Republican nominee.
One read: "@RealDonaldTrump is right. If @HillaryClinton gets to pick her anti-#2A #SCOTUS judges, there's nothing we can do. #NeverHillary."
The second read: "But there IS something we will do on #ElectionDay: Show up and vote for the #2A! #DefendtheSecond #NeverHillary."
But even some Trump supporters appeared taken aback by the nominee's comments. A video of the rally shows a man seated behind Trump open his mouth in disbelief and turn to his companion with a puzzled look on his face after Trump made the remark.
Campaigning in Pennsylvania, Trump's running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, said Trump was "very clear" in what he meant.
"Donald Trump is urging people around this country to act in a manner consistent with their convictions in the course of this election, and people who cherish the Second Amendment have a very clear choice in this election," he told Philadelphia's NBC affiliate.
Trump's comments came a few weeks after one of his campaign advisers said "Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason."
The Secret Service is investigating those remarks, made last month by Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire state lawmaker and an adviser to Trump on veterans' issues. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said then that neither Trump nor his campaign agree with Baldasaro's comments.
Trump's comments Tuesday were reminiscent of the "Second Amendment remedies" floated in 2010 by Sharron Angle, a Nevada Senate candidate who was criticized for seeming to allude to a call for violence.
Lemire reported from New York.