July 11, 2021, was a day of celebration.
Edwin Santos enjoyed a party for his graduation, birthday and the recent birthday of his cousin, Anthony Cruz-Santos.
The next morning, the family received news that Cruz-Santos had been killed in a shooting in Woodbridge.
“To this day, we don’t necessarily know why,” Edwin Santos said. “We can’t just stay quiet. We can’t let his case be a simple case that happened a year ago and nothing happens.”
The slaying awakened a call to action, and Santos joined other Prince William County residents to fight growing local gun violence.
Those residents have revived the local chapter of Moms Demand Action after a continuing spate of shootings in the county. At least four people have been killed and 12 injured in nine shootings in Prince William since May, including a 9-year-old girl hit by a stray bullet.
Now hosting chapters around the country, Moms Demand Action started in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Local chapter lead Shantell Rock, who is also chair of the county’s Racial and Social Justice Commission, began mobilizing to respond to the shootings earlier this year. After the 9-year-old was shot in May, “it kind of activated a call of action on my behalf with community partners,” she said.
“The consistent shooting is getting out of control,” she said. “I feel like there has been no action.”
Byron Jenkins, the chapter’s data lead, said it’s difficult to tie the shootings to one specific problem.
“It’s kind of hard to put your finger on what’s going on,” he said.
Many of the shootings have involved teenage shooters or victims. Santos, who is serving as the chapter’s student lead, said local youth can’t legally buy guns, so it’s important to prevent them from accessing firearms.
Students also need to be encouraged to report troubling or suspicious behavior by their peers, Santos said. “A lot of times youth, especially high school students, they’re afraid to go to authority … because they’re afraid of snitching on their friends when they don’t understand the implications.”
Cruz-Santos’ family held a memorial for him and a call to action on July 30.
Rock said officials need to strike a balance between “a level of accountability” for youth caught with weapons without having their futures ruined through the legal system.
“A lot of time when we’re advocating against the school-to-prison pipeline, we’re excluding accountability,” she said.
Group leaders said they plan to work with legislators, police and the legal system to make a difference. The group’s first meeting is scheduled Sept. 1.
Santos called for people concerned about gun violence to take concrete action.
“We’re actually putting our hands and feet to create the change we need and not just reposting something online,” he said. “I hope this article isn’t just something that people read and share.”