It happened on June 27, 2010. My cousin, Victor Mba-Jonas Jr., was getting his life back on track when a gun cut it short. I remember being told what happened — how hollow I felt, how full of sadness I was, how painful it was to know that something like this could have happened to our loved ones, to our family, to me.
Victor was a generous person, exceedingly kind and warm. He revered his father, a successful lawyer, and had aspirations to follow in his footsteps. But his path was not without obstacles and hardships. He became involved in organized crime in Washington, D.C., his educational prospects began to slip away, and it became harder and harder to see a way forward to fulfill his dreams.
But he was committed to reversing that trajectory and decided to forge a new path, away from organized crime. I admired him for this choice — a difficult, dangerous choice to make, but one that he believed would set him up for success. But that success never got the chance to arrive. He was shot and killed in his attempt to leave.
Victor is not the only loved one I know who has been taken by gun violence, and his story is not unlike many others in the District of Columbia, in Maryland, and across the country — part of the more than 40,000 people taken by gun violence every year in the U.S.
Whenever someone we love is taken by gun violence, a piece of ourselves gets taken with them. And so does a piece of our communities. I have experienced this community trauma firsthand, not only in my personal life as a gun violence survivor, but also professionally.
As a nursing student at Trinity Washington University working as a medical assistant in a D.C. hospital, I have witnessed the toll that gun violence can take. And with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, that toll has only worsened. We are in the midst of dual public health crises, challenging myself and others to take on so much loss and work even harder, as medical professionals, as siblings, as parents, as friends, as cousins — as human beings doing our best to serve our communities.
Every week, there are new patients who come in either with a case of COVID or a gun-related injury — the latter of which has surged in the midst of the COVID pandemic. When COVID emerged, the gun sales spiked. When gun sales spiked, so did gun violence. In Washington D.C., more than 200 people died by homicide in 2021 alone, overwhelmingly involving guns. In Baltimore, that number was over 300. And these numbers are not anomalies. Since the onset of the pandemic, cities across the country have experienced record levels of gun violence.
When hospitals run out of beds for victims of gun violence because the ones we have are already full of sick people, dying from a virus; when the streets we live on continue to be plagued with ever-increasing threats to public safety; when we go home to our families, who are struggling to live through each day — we all experience these deeply felt impacts, too numerous to mention.
But what we learn from these difficult and uncertain times is the power of community. Even when pieces get taken away, our communities find ways to acknowledge those missing pieces and fight to ensure that they are remembered and that there are roads to healing. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that communities play a major role in confronting gun violence head-on.
Community is what gives me hope. Community provides an avenue for meaningful, positive change. Community is what empowers us to use our influence as individuals to understand, care for, and uplift one another. For National Gun Violence Survivors Week (Feb. 1-7) and beyond, it is more important than ever to share our stories, like Victor’s, whose terrific kindness and determination to succeed underscore the devastation gun violence can reap. And these stories help us fight even harder for the urgent change that we need to turn the tide of gun violence and make our communities a safer place for us all.
Celeste Iroha is a Laurel native and a Students Demand Action volunteer and Survivor Fellow with the Everytown Survivor Network.