Vic Mensa is no stranger to gun violence, and has emerged as an avid gun control advocate throughout his rising career as a rapper – he’s signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation, and released his major label debut, the well-received ‘The Autobiography,’ last year. He is also a gun-owner and has faced his own gun possession charges, lending him a nuanced view and unique perspective on the issue. Here are his thoughts on why, now more than ever, gun control – specifically a ban on assault rifles – is a necessity in our country.
My heart sank into my gut as the voice on the other side of the phone fed me words I could hardly stomach. “Are they talking about Cam?” I asked, referring to the barrage of R.I.P. tweets flooding my timeline as I sat in a sweaty recording studio on Chicago’s near West Side. “Yes,” she answered, her voice devoid of emotion. “He got shot.”
He got shot. He got shot. These words have reverberated through my eardrums too many times in my 25 years. Too many blissful summers have been stained with the blood of men cut down in a vicious cycle of ultra-violence that rips through my city like a cyclone, tearing apart families and leaving broken homes and broken men on street corners adorned with makeshift memorials for the dead. Later that day, I got a call from Cam’s best friend, Brian, as I bent the corner to the ramp from Lake Shore Drive to I-94. He sounded as if he had spoken these words one too many times, imparting a grim message I have held on to, and passed down to younger generations of loved ones: “You are of that age now where you will start losing people you love, and there’s nothing you can do to control it.”
I was 18 when Cam died. Too young to buy a handgun or Hennessy, but old enough to buy an AR-15 or be shipped off to war. In the wake of the recent influx of mass shootings, I have come to question Brian’s words. Must we accept the devastation of gun violence as the reality of life as an American? Or can we reject that terrible fate? The tide is turning against the waves of blood washing our streets, and the time has come for a good, hard look at the line between constitutional freedom and slavery to violence. Gun culture in America is a plague, but the virus is too ingrained to be wiped out completely – it’s past time that we address the symptoms. The carnage in black communities won’t be solved by gun control; that will take infrastructure, money and government support to bridge the gaps that have forgotten those communities. Mass shootings, on the other hand, are a different phenomenon, one that can be affected by having some common sense and the courage to challenge the billionaires profiting from our sorrow.
I am a gun owner, have had issues with the law over my gun ownership, have felt the pain of losing loved ones to gun violence and I vehemently support gun control, particularly a reinstatement of the ban on AR-15s.
Earlier this year, I was approached by TMZ outside of a Los Angeles nightclub and asked to comment on the recent surge of mass shootings dominating the news cycle. In that moment, I felt a disconnect between the poverty-stricken violence of my war-torn hometown and that of the white-picket-fence communities being assaulted by disgruntled young men borrowing dad’s guns to cut down their classmates. It wasn’t until I performed at the March For Our Lives in D.C. and met one of the student organizers, a young man named Matt Deitsch from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, that I fully realized the extent of our similarities.
Matt greeted me with a handshake and a hug, and launched into a story of how he had been to a festival performance of mine, and listened to my music for years. That’s a single degree of separation between myself and the killing spree that claimed 17 lives on that fateful day in February. White, black or brown – we all bleed red.
The brave and tenacious young men and women from Parkland have been met with venomous responses from the NRA’s cronies, who label them “crisis actors” and “poor mushy-brained children.” A matter of the unalienable right to life has been heavily politicized and divided into a liberal versus conservative battle that has crossed all lines of decency and compassion. How one can look in eyes of a 16-year-old girl who’s been barraged with .223-caliber ammunition and attack her credibility is beyond me, but it’s representative of the rift in our nation.
“I am a gun owner, have had issues with the law over my gun ownership, have felt the pain of losing loved ones to gun violence and I vehemently support gun control, particularly a reinstatement of the ban on AR-15s.”
I write these words understanding and acknowledging that many people in our nation will regard my opinion as completely invalid, due to a conviction for a firearm offense in 2017.
In January of last year, I was driving my BMW through Beverly Hills, rushing to make it to a doctor’s appointment in Santa Monica. When I saw the blue and and white lights in my rearview mirror, my pulse began to race as I thought of the small concealed pistol tucked comfortably in the driver’s seat door. Although the gun is registered to me in Illinois, where I also have a concealed carry permit, I knew I was fucked. As the traffic stop escalated to a search of the car, I announced the weapon and proceeded to get my black ass thrown in jail, where I slept for the night on a stomach full of baloney and cheese. A paranoid state of mind, developed by a constant threat of violence in Chicago, led me to make a mistake in the state of California. I am currently paying the consequences. After bailing out, going to court and having my charges reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, I am now serving a sentence of two years of informal probation. I have since been labeled a hypocrite for speaking out on behalf of gun control, and had my point of view labeled irrelevant by the Right.
As someone who clearly supports gun ownership, I believe it is time we stop allowing distractions to divert our attention from the single most important piece of gun control legislation currently possible: a widespread ban on assault rifles. Las Vegas, Pulse Nightclub, Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. 152 dead. Just four shooters. What do all of these attacks have in common? Long barrel assault rifles with high magazine capacity, commonly referred to as AR-15s.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that guns don’t kill people, but people kill people. How many people do you think could have been killed if these attackers had knives? Two or three per incident? That’d be 140 fewer lives lost than the death toll I’ve presented. What about handguns? If you have 16 or 17 rounds in a 9-millimeter pistol, assuming each assailant killed a person with every single bullet in their magazine, that would be around 64 people killed, still less than half of the colossal total of deaths in these four shootings. It seems blatantly evident that this particular class of weapon gives would-be mass murderers an expanded capacity to kill, and that’s why so many have gravitated to the same gun. Arguments for why Americans need the right to own AR-15s vary from the imperative (self-defense), the unnecessary (hunting, tinkering, competitive shooting) to the highly improbable (disaster preparedness, fighting a tyrannical government). These are listed on the NRA website Americas1stFreedom.com.
The truth is that this weapon was not designed for farm use or for garage mechanics looking for an easily customizable collectors item. The Armalite AR-15 was designed to help American troops slaughter the Vietnamese. The first of these soldiers found that the fragmentation of the gun’s bullets caused such devastation that the photographs documenting the damage would be classified until the 1980s. Almost 60 years after its introduction in the killing fields of South Vietnam, the AR-15 has become “America’s rifle,” the prized favorite of a $50 billion industry. But at what cost in human lives? The ingenious marketing and promotion of the corporate interests getting fat and filthy rich from gun sales have convinced much of the nation that they need these once outlawed weapons, so much so that a near-religious fanaticism has developed around its polarizing six pounds of aluminum.
Let me be clear: There can be no meaningful and significant progress made on the issue of gun control without a complete ban of AR-15s for commercial consumption.
As I left the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C. I was approached by a woman carrying yellow wristbands that said “Change The Ref.” “He’s not here anymore, but my brother was a huge fan of yours,” she said, handing me a wristband. “He would want you to have this.” I slipped it on my wrist and quietly thanked her before wading through the crowd in the street to the black SUV waiting for us.
I sat in silence, shaken to my core, for several minutes, replaying the words in my head and ruminating on the life and death of her brother, Joaquin “Guac” Oliver, whom I never met, but in that moment represented all of the supporters who make my life possible. I also thought of my big brother Cam, cut down by burning brass far before he had a chance to realize his life’s potential. I thought of Nigel, killed on his doorstep, and Big Freeky, murdered just after the birth of his first child. I thought of the drastic societal changes needed in marginalized communities to save young men like them. I thought of the spineless politicians selling the lives of their own constituents for campaign donations, and the brainwashed masses worshipping their weapons like some sort of golden cow.
My mind spun, until it eventually returned to Guac and the yellow wristband on my arm. The life and death of Guac. He didn’t get a choice. Death was decided for him. It is for him, in his memory, that we must choose life.