The journey of Darren Wagner will help you touch the surface of an ocean of despair that has washed over Newtown and Sandy Hook, Connecticut. We had to stop filming after Darren told this story to Annabel. She was overcome with tears and could not muster a follow-up question. Behind the camera, I was crying too.
When we resumed, Annabel asked Darren about parenting, and social expectations of masculinity. Not so implicit was the fact that he had been crying, and his two teenage sons were right upstairs.
Before the Sandy Hook massacre, Darren had never really talked to his sons about his 11-year career as a Deputy Sheriff in Ohio. He had never told them about the horrific gun violence he had investigated, the tragedies he had witnessed, the "regret to inform" conversations he'd had, over and over again. He had never told them how gun violence had caused him to leave the law enforcement field and seek a peaceful life, a journey that led him to their mother, Georgia, and a quiet life in Australia, where Georgia and their two sons were born.
Darren and Georgia explained to us that day how the family had come to choose Sandy Hook, when they agreed to resettle in the United States. Darren had been homesick. He missed his relatives. In a remote, coastal area of Australia, their young boys referred to a nearby town with a single stoplight as "the city." And they were fascinated by images of America on TV.
Georgia, though, was concerned about moving. The murder statistics and gun culture of America are well-known to Australians. In 1996, a man had used a semi-automatic assault weapon to kill 35 people, leading to new gun safety laws spearheaded by conservative Prime Minister John Howard. Recently, hoping to embolden leaders in the U.S., Howard wrote in a New York Times op-ed:
In the 18 years before the 1996 reforms, Australia suffered 13 gun massacres — each with more than four victims — causing a total of 102 deaths. There has not been a single massacre in that category since 1996. Few Australians would deny that their country is safer today as a consequence of gun control.
So, the hard but true irony of this story is that Georgia Monaghan Wagner was among those Australians who had concluded that gun safety laws can be effective. Georgia's chief objection to relocating in the United States — where the Virginia Tech massacre had recently taken place — was the fact that here, no such laws existed.
Georgia did a year of research in order to find a town in the United States that met three criteria: (1) near the ocean and a major city (2) near Darren's family in Ohio, and (3) safe for her children. Her selection: Newtown, CT.
Darren told us in great detail how his family had experienced the shock of Dec. 14, 2012 — four years after the purchase of their dream home in Sandy Hook. Texting allowed him to confirm that his sons were safe, even as news reports swirled of a second shooter and Newtown High School was locked down. "It's been a long time since we waited in front of the house for the school bus to roll up," Darren said. "On this day, we waited and it couldn't have come soon enough."
The interview above, filmed one month later, addresses the way in which Darren tried to process the tragedy through the lens of a camera. His photography career had begun in Australia (if you don't count crime scene photography) and blossomed into a successful business. He had documented weddings and bar-mitzvahs. Since moving to Sandy Hook, he'd become the chief photographer for The Newtowner, a literary magazine for which Georgia is the founder and editor.
Annabel and I took particular interest in Darren's story about Facebook. He'd come to the defense of the local rabbi when gun fanatics somewhere in the U.S. had used Facebook to find, vilify, and intimidate him. Darren was especially outraged that they'd called the rabbi a "Nazi."
As he began to speak out as a former law enforcement officer about the need for gun safety laws, he, too received hateful messages. Darren explained to us that, for whatever reason, gun fanatics have been using Facebook to try to silence people who live in Newtown and Sandy Hook. They probably believed that threatening to shoot Darren would silence him, and, that silencing the people of Newtown and Sandy Hook would further their political goals.
Darren said that his sons had reacted. "Cool, you're in a Facebook fight?!" But Darren did not think it would be cool for his sons to see their father threatened with gun violence. He deleted his account. But as he says in the video above, "If someone wants to shoot me, I want a larger audience to know I had something to say."
Note: Recently, Darren, Georgia and other Newtown residents founded new grassroots organization to advocate for gun control, Newtown Action Alliance.