By Paris, Washington Post Op-Ed
I consider myself a politically astute hip-hop artist with over 4 million in sales to my credit, but I still can’t update my songs and videos fast enough to chronicle the rapid pace of gun-related loss of life.
Guns are the disregarded public health emergency ravaging my community — the black community — but without reform of America’s gun laws, and an acknowledgement that people are dying while the gun industry profits, this will continue to be my community’s holocaust.
I lost one of my close friends a few years ago — an up-and-coming hip-hop artist whose rhymes were positive and uplifting. He was shot after a verbal altercation left him bleeding to death in a parking lot. Another friend of mine — a father of two, unarmed and not connected to the dope game — was shot in his car and the crime was never solved. The pain and anger I felt were so familiar to me that I was almost numb to it — last year, ProPublica reported that people living in gun-plagued communities suffer from PTSD, and having been down this road five times, that’s exactly how I would describe it.
Black Americans are more than twice as likely to die from gun violence as whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the last few months, homicide rates have increased in major cities including New York, Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee, New Orleans and St. Louis, and “violence is disproportionately impacting our poor and predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods.” Until recently, this steady diet of death, particularly of young people — robbed of life before they can really begin it — has rarely garnered proper attention. Even when it does, the blame is too-often placed on the communities that have been most damaged by gun violence.
And if you follow the mainstream press, mass shootings are how gun violence is often defined, with the latest incident in Lafayette, La., again igniting the debate over gun reform. In that debate, I agree with CNN’s Sunny Hostin when she says that our lack of stricter gun laws means “we do not seem to have sufficient common sense.” But I’m not with folks like former congressman Allen West, who’s still in denial, and who rejected even the idea of prioritizing gun reform as just a “political issue.” He’d rather place all the blame on the perpetrators of these shootings without confronting the proliferation guns on America’s streets.
That entire discussion is a futile and familiar dance. Media outlets prefer to focus on sensational episodes of gun violence, like Lafayette, with round-the-clock coverage of the events; followed by in-depth analysis of shooters’ motivations; followed by on-air outrage that yet another mass shooting has taken the lives of innocents; followed by references to terrorism if the shooter is Muslim, thuggery if the shooter is black and mental illness if the perp is white. Political posturing then ensues. Donald Trump’s reaction to Lafayette was “he’s a sick puppy” — zeroing in on the accused shooter’s mental state, rather than his apparently easy access to firearms. The end result, ultimately, is political inaction.
What the dialogue on gun laws manages to routinely leave out is the perspective from communities systematically impacted by gun violence that doesn’t get the same kind of headlines. All too often, we as black Americans are only seen as either perpetrators or victims — not people with points of view worth considering in the debate. But for me, having been to too many funerals for fallen friends, the voices of cable-news pundits and politicians now ring hollow. I’d be willing to bet that very few of those in opposition to gun reform on a legislative level have ever known or been the victims of gun violence.
Rarely do we hear of the lingering grief of survivors, the PTSD-like symptoms of those left behind, or the hardships faced by victims of violence who aren’t killed, but whose wounds result in a lifetime of physical and mental trauma that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars just to manage, let alone heal. For every gun-related death in most major cities, there are more cases of survival, and that survival is often marred by a life of difficulty and suffering.
There’s been debate about whether gun violence merits a “public health” designation, which would allow the issue to be addressed with public service campaigns similar to those that speak to widespread public health problems like smoking or texting while driving.
But any move that potentially makes gun acquisition more difficult is ardently opposed by the gun lobby, which succeeds by playing to America’s insatiable gun lust, based mostly on fear. A fear of crime; of the perceived threat that government will roll back the 2nd Amendment; and, increasingly, fear of minorities and the “other” in a racially charged climate where people of color are still constantly portrayed as criminals. Given these media-induced motivations driving people to arm themselves, it’s easy to see why lines wind up being drawn along racial lines, and along the dividing line between cities and suburbs. But the reality is that tough gun control laws are already in place in many urban centers, where guns still wind up being easy to obtain, often because they’re brought to cities from rural areas with less-restrictive gun laws.
Just to be clear — I own firearms — because I believe in self-defense. Black lives do, in fact, matter, and given the number of incidents we’ve seen recently where unarmed African Americans have been subjected to unwarranted police violence, I think my position, and my status as a gun owner, is more than reasonable.
And as an artist, I don’t want to let my industry off the hook for corporate hip-hop that promotes an almost cartoonish savagery with lyrics like “Mask on, fully loaded, when I pull on street; Rifle butcher knife, zip ties for hands and feet” — taken from an upcoming major-label release — that do their part to glorify the very real gun violence prevalent in too many communities.
It’s no surprise, though, that common-sense gun law reform is anathema to the NRA, the largest gun lobby in the country. A big chunk of their funding comes from gun owners and gun manufacturers. And I question the motivations of an organization that once advocated for gun control as a necessary adjunct to citizen gun ownership, but now opposes nearly every reform attempt, especially when they’ve been accused in recent years of irregularities in their fundraising activities.
I’ve seen the enemy and it doesn’t look like me. It looks like the political machinery that makes guns readily available in my community. It also looks like media outlets that fuel the fires of racism, and the business interests that profit from the exploitation of warped messages designed to influence those susceptible to its influence.
Hopefully the tragedy of mass shootings, born of too-easy access to guns, will be the catalyst for us to meaningfully deal with gun violence.