Last year, Bob Buckhorn stood on a Navy warfare boat and fired blanks from a .50-caliber machine gun as a crowd watched. The Tampa mayor was just “rescued” from his mock captors as part of a military demonstration in Florida.
At this year’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, Buckhorn talked about that experience and joked about pointing the machine gun at reporters at the 2016 event.
“I’ve never seen grown men cry like little girls, for when that gun goes off those media folks just hit the deck like no one’s business,” Buckhorn said in his opening remarks Tuesday, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s great payback. I love it.”
Buckhorn did not actually point at anyone in particular during the demonstration. A video taken by a Fox News affiliate shows him moving the machine gun in different directions as he fired blanks.
Still, his joke has been a topic of conversation among journalists, specifically those who’ve faced danger on the job. Many said the remarks were inappropriate, especially at a time when the free press has become the president’s verbal punching bag.
“I know how it feels to stare down a live weapon and realize that your life hangs by a finger-twitch,” freelance writer Susan Katz Keating said on the Military Reporters and Editors Facebook page. “I do understand the impulse to smack back at your adversaries in good fun, but this really isn’t all that funny.”
Keating said she’d been held at gunpoint while covering a conflict zone in Northern Ireland. She and others also argued that by pointing the machine gun, Buckhorn violated a basic rule on firearm safety: Never point a gun unless you’re ready to actually shoot someone.
“Those of us who have been to war and been shot at would naturally dive for cover not knowing what he’s doing,” Greg Mathieson, who spent three decades photographing war zones, wrote on the Facebook page. “It’s not a game, nor funny. Maybe he needs to spend a week in Syria and see how funny it really is.”
Travis Tritten, a national security reporter for the Washington Examiner, said Buckhorn’s handling of the firearm was more concerning than what he said.
“POTUS has said far worse,” Tritten said on the Facebook page. “I’d just wave it off.”
Ashley Bauman, spokeswoman for the city of Tampa, said Buckhorn has told the story multiple times and it was never construed as an accurate portrayal of what had occurred.
“It was merely a humorous tongue in cheek description. Clearly that does not translate on Twitter, and in light of the current rhetoric at the national level aimed at the media, inadvertently served to reinforce some of those sentiments,” Bauman said in a statement. “That was not his intention.”
Buckhorn told the Tampa Bay Times that his joke does not reflect his relationship with the media.
“I am the first one to defend the Fourth Estate. I am the product of it. I grew up with ink on my fingers,” said Buckhorn, whose father was a wire-service reporter. “But you can’t be so politically correct that you lose the humor of the situation.”
Buckhorn, a Democrat, isn’t the only politician to make a joke about violence against journalists.
The day after he made his comments, Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly was caught on a hot mic joking with President Trump about a ceremonial saber presented to the president during the commencement ceremony at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.
“You can use that on the press, sir,” Kelly told Trump.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Trump said, as Kelly laughed.
The New York Times reported last week that Trump urged then-FBI Director James B. Comey during a private meeting in February to consider imprisoning journalists for publishing classified information. Comey’s associates told the Times and The Washington Post that Comey had kept a detailed account of the meeting, in which Trump condemned leaks to the press.
“Reporting on classified information is a bedrock right of journalists, and so I guess it’s only natural, given his past statements, that Trump wants to take that away,” Trevor Timm, executive editor of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, told Poynter. “Any prosecution of reporters for publishing true information about our government would strike at the very heart of press freedom.”
More than 1,200 journalists have been killed on the job since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. About 450 have been exiled since 2008, and nearly 260 were imprisoned in 2016. Nine were killed this year.
Buckhorn’s name had been floated for the Florida gubernatorial race next year, but he announced in March that he won’t be seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
This story, originally published on May 21, 2017, has been updated.