The Rifleman

The daughter of a Singaporean marksman takes aim at American gun culture

The Rifleman

Illustration by Lucia Gaia

As the gun shop owner takes aim with his handgun, I can almost see my father in him. Chris Dogolo closes his left eye and raises his arms, which are locked at the elbows. One hand is clasped tightly around the grip, index finger off the trigger; the other hand rests on the cylinder and barrel. All his attention is concentrated toward a single point on the wall. Minutes before, Chris had been showing me his favorite target, a paper bullseye that he shot 13 years ago with the aid of a laser sight, which uses a beam of focused light to show the bullet's destination. He is now giving me a live demonstration of the laser-sighted handgun sold in his store. A red spot hovers over the white paint, trembles imperceptibly, then is gone.

Like Chris, my father is a marksman. Chris is from New Haven, I study in New Haven. But the similarities stop there. Chris was born in Connecticut, the historic seat of famous American gun companies like Colt and O.F. Mossberg & Sons. I was born in Singapore, which effectively outlawed private gun ownership almost half a century ago. Chris is a 66-year-old gun store owner with a full head of white hair and a thick moustache to match. I am a 22-year-old college student with no white hair or moustache as far as I can tell, although that may well change in time. Yet my curiosity brought us to the same basement room in Chris' Indoor Range & Gun Shop, hidden beneath the Boston Post Road (along which General Lafayette had marched his armed troops during the American Revolution), in the rural town of Guilford, Connecticut.

Chris eyes me appraisingly through thin-rimmed spectacles. I feel his watchful gaze assessing whether I am benign enough or someone to be wary of. But he is much more friendly in person than he sounds on the phone. Above the glass countertop hang three moose heads, mouths agape, next to a smooth set of antlers and a wild boar head. The largest animal Chris has killed is a squirrel, and that was 40 years ago. His father, with whom he learned to shoot, was an animal lover who had no desire to kill, skin, or stuff fellow creatures. The taxidermy animal heads were gifts from friends whose wives banned hunting trophies from their homes. Chris keeps them here because he thinks they fit in with the “range scenario.”

The shelves of Chris’s gun shop are lined with leather holsters and cleaning supplies. Pistols and revolvers and rifles stand at attention like cowboys at a shootout. Bullseye targets and oval targets and human-shaped targets (called hostage targets) are tacked on the wall behind his countertop for his customers to choose from. You won’t find AR-15s or other assault weapons in this store though, because they were banned in Connecticut following Public Act 13-3, the post-Sandy Hook gun legislation passed seven years ago. But even before they were outlawed, Chris didn’t sell many AR-15s. They use long-range, high-velocity bullets that are not allowed in Chris’s indoor range; to shoot them here would be too dangerous.

Chris’s customers are good people, he says. He doesn’t get crazies or wisecrackers in here, he tells me. He gets women in yoga tights and Yale Medical School surgeons. “The media makes gun people seem like they’re all monsters and they're not,” Chris says, holding my gaze intensely for a moment to emphasize his point.

The range, built over 40 years ago, has barely changed since Chris began coming here as a young man to shoot. In 2005, he heard that the owner was leaving and knew immediately that he had to relocate from his gun shop in New Haven to this larger property. He envisioned the store as an all-in-one location where you could take shooting lessons, get your pistol permit, buy a gun and ammunition, and fire at targets. All he needed to do was add a coat of paint, hang his inventory on the gun racks, and stick up a sign that said “Chris' Indoor Range & Gun Shop.”

It is North Fork, New Mexico, sometime in the 1880s. The saloons and bars and brothels of American frontier towns teem with prospectors hungry for a piece of the famed silver-lined mines so rich that they are dubbed “bridal chambers.” Gunslingers swagger down the main street, pistols in holsters, rifles in hand. These rugged individuals, free and wild, are beyond the law…or so the story goes. Enter Lucas McCain—his reputation with a rifle precedes him. He makes his way down the main street of North Fork, empties 11 shots from his customized 1892 Winchester carbine in four seconds flat, then looks directly at you, the viewer, through the television screen, one eyebrow cocked as he reloads. The opening credits roll, the orchestral music swells to a climactic finish, and a deep voice announces the show: “The Rifleman, starring Chuck Connors!”

Lucas McCain as the rifleman was a myth forged in the cathode-ray tubes of 1950s black-and-white television. In 1955, the simultaneous debut of what would become two of the most famous television westerns—The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Gunsmoke—unleashed a frenzy in the American viewer’s imagination. Over the next four years in living rooms around the country, 30 television westerns occupied coveted spots on prime time television. Hollywood was turned into a cowboy mill: every ranch was rented out, horses were making more than people, actors became “Method Cowboys.”

Analyzing the phenomenon in 1959, a TIME feature alleged that America was in the process of writing its own creation myth, capable of rivaling that of the Greeks. America’s answer to the heroes of the Iliad was a blue-eyed gunman with saddlebags and a six-shot revolver. But while stabbing, stoning and slaughter were employed gratuitously in the ancient classics, violence would only be used to uphold virtue and righteousness in this American story. “The western is really the American morality play,” declared TIME, “in which Good and Evil, Spirit and Nature, Christian and Pagan fight to the finish on the vast stage of the unbroken prairie.” Television westerns 70 years ago did more than the NRA ever could to valorize gun culture. (The irony is that frontier towns like Tombstone, Arizona, had stricter laws on carrying guns in 1880 than they do in 2019; they largely prohibited concealed carry. Gunslingers had to leave their weapons at the edge of town before entering.)

But in rewriting America’s origin story, Hollywood conveniently forgot the role played by non-Europeans in defending and building the American frontier. They forgot that the first cowboys were not white and that by the late nineteenth-century, a significant number (as many as a third, by some estimates) were Mexican herders known as vaqueros. They inspired caucasian men to take up white hats and bandanas, stirrups and lassos, and assume the role of alpha on the range. Meanwhile, Argentinian gauchos, Mexican bandits, and Native Americans were caricatured as the murderous villains who threatened the safety of good townsfolk.

Growing up in New England in the 1960s, Chris Dogolo was miles and years away from the American Old West. But every night, when the prime time television westerns aired, he and his father would step into those cowboy boots for the duration of the shows. Sometimes, while he was watching, 10-year-old Chris would cock his BB gun and throw it to his dad, mirroring the action on the TV. Their favorite show to watch together was The Rifleman. This family drama was the first American television western to feature a single father as its protagonist. For half an hour each week, McCain fought bandits and bullies, protected orphans and immigrants, and risked life and limb to keep his son, Mark, out of harm’s way.

In his preteen years, Chris read everything available about guns. He could identify them by their make and model on sight—Beretta nine-millimeters, Colt .45s, .44 Magnum revolvers. His first gun was a Winchester Model 190 semi-automatic with a glossy wooden finish and the Winchester trademark proudly etched into the left barrel—the mark of a true American pedigree. It was given to him, brand-new with the tag still attached, by a friend of his father’s who had more guns than he knew what to do with.

Every Sunday morning as a teenager, Chris went out shooting with his dad at the Blue Trail Range in Wallingford, Connecticut. Afterward, they’d enjoy breakfast, clean the guns, and watch football together. It was during this time that Chris began shooting trap, a type of clay pigeon shooting. Even today, Chris loves to shoot trap because he likes to see things happen— a bottle shattering, a can of soda exploding, a clay target bursting into smithereens as it is launched across the sky. He doesn’t just want to shoot at a piece of paper. “Shooting is a competition with yourself, with you and the gun,” Chris tells me, lifting his big-knuckled hands as if he is holding a gun, lining up the sights, and pulling the trigger.

I knew about clay pigeon shooting before Chris told me, because my father is a competitive marksman. He has represented Singapore during prestigious international meets. But before meeting Chris, I had never fired a gun. As a child, I followed my father to the shooting range where he trained, trailing after him with his bulky earmuffs and canvas shooting vest in my arms. While he emptied lead shot into the blazing Singapore sky, I would entertain myself by running my fingers over the touch-me-not flowers that grew by the edge of the shooting range, watching the tiny oval leaves shiver open and closed.

Afterward, I begged my father to tell me his old shooting stories: how he never picked up a gun until he was conscripted for national service, during which he became the top sharpshooter in his platoon; how he was recruited for the national team at twenty-three; how he won a Southeast Asian Games bronze medal in skeet (it now sits in a box in our basement). But even if my father wanted his youngest daughter to follow in his footsteps, he couldn’t have legally taught me to shoot. Singapore has some of the strictest gun laws in the world, as well as the lowest rate of deaths by firearms. In 2017, the US had 4.43 violent gun deaths per 100,000 people. Singapore had 0.02. In the US, more than 260,000 people have been murdered with a firearm since the beginning of this century. In Singapore, the number is two.

Singapore's notoriously tough gun laws emerged in response to ruthless street crime in the 60s and 70s, shortly after Singapore became an independent nation. Notable criminal organizations included a gun-smuggling syndicate led by a pair of brothers; the secret society Salakau, known for fighting brutal turf wars; and the “swimming trunk gang,” which rose to infamy for wearing only swimming trunks during the many armed robberies and thefts they carried out.

In 1972, a notorious gunman known as Lim Ban Lim was finally shot dead after years on the run, ushering in a period of gun law reform. Lim had murdered a police corporal in what was described by the state coroner as a “Hollywood-style shooting.” Even then, the world used American cinema as a byword for deadly gunfighting. But unlike America, Singapore instituted gun control; the 1973 Arms Offences Act ended all aspirations for private gun ownership. It criminalized the possession of guns without a license and imposed the mandatory death penalty for any crime committed while using firearms, even an attempted robbery in which no one is injured. Arms trafficking is a capital offence as well. Only people with a license—primarily national sport shooters like my dad—or the military and police can obtain a firearm.

In 1975, Sha Bakar Dawood became the first person executed under these laws for shooting and wounding three people at a brothel close to Singapore’s redlight district, Geylang. To date, there have been nine recorded cases of people executed in Singapore for firearms-related crimes, although I could not find statistics from before 1991 or between 2000 and 2006. The Singapore government is notoriously tight-lipped about cases involving the death penalty, and the only official data about yearly executions is published in the Singapore Prison Service Annual Reports, which are not available online from before 2008. As someone who staunchly opposes the death penalty, I am doubtful that a mandatory death sentence on firearms-related offences is necessary to prevent gun violence. That said, I also am also aware that because of these laws, I could spend my teenage years hanging out in rowdy clubs and alleyway bars until 2am without fear for my safety. I never had to learn to take shelter and hide during the sort of active shooter drills that have become commonplace in American public schools. When I left for college, several of my friends wrote to me with advice on how to survive in America. Common to all of the letters, cards, and notes I received was the refrain: don’t get shot. If I had to choose between the tyranny of law and the tyranny of lawlessness, I would be hesitant to choose the latter.

Chris pauses our conversation several times to deal with customers arriving to shoot in his basement range. He always follows the same procedure: record their name in a bound logbook, provide a lane number and a target of their choosing, and, if they are not registered members, check their pistol permit. I tell Chris that in Singapore, almost no one is allowed to own guns and even my dad has to keep it at the range, locked and subject to strict audits. “It may have happened in your country but it’s not happening here,” says Chris. “Guns are part of our heritage. They’re not all being used to kill people and for mass shootings.”

If I’m writing about guns, Chris says, I have to fire one myself. He seems to think there is something irreducible about the act of firing a gun that would help me understand—maybe even empathize with—gun lovers. Back home, learning your way around a gun is something that most girls just don’t do. Guns are the preserve of the police, military, and skinny Singaporean boys who are conscripted at eighteen, fresh out of school, under mandatory national service. To most Singaporeans, a gun is a distant and mythic object, glimpsed only during our annual independence day parade and in Quentin Tarantino films. But perhaps because of my father’s love for skeet shooting, I feel an urge to hold a gun, to know how much it weighs, and maybe understand what goes through my father’s mind when he stands, rifle at the ready, waiting for a target to appear.

On the day I am to learn to shoot, Chris hands me a Smith and Wesson Model 63 Revolver. At 25 ounces unloaded, it is lighter than the average handgun and suitable for my small hands. I take the unloaded gun from him to feel its weight. It has a silver stainless steel barrel and a neat J-shape. He hands me eye protection to wear over my glasses and a pair of big earmuffs just like my dad’s. Immediately, I am sealed off from the sounds of the world. Chris’ voice calls out to me but I can barely hear the words. It is as though we are separated by a wall of ice. I follow him down the narrow staircase into his basement shooting range.

The range is a concrete cage that resembles a parking garage. We step into a narrow, claustrophobic booth. On the left wall is a heavy-duty toggle switch that sends the paper target zipping 25 to 75 feet out on a guide wire and into the range. The lanes sit blank and expectant before me.

“When you shoot this, you’re going to get a little jolt, but I guarantee you it’s not going to hurt you,” Chris says kindly, eyeing me through his protective glasses. I am in a basement, in a foreign country, with a stranger, holding a loaded gun, but I feel oddly reassured by Chris’ presence.

I remember my father once told me that many Singaporean national servicemen shut their eyes when they fire a gun for the first time. Gun handling is unnatural to us. It is not in our culture. Yet the dramatic curve of the trigger shapes itself comfortably around the pad of my index finger. The gun feels like it could become, in time and through habit, an extension of my hand.

I line up the sights to the six o’clock of the target. My vision shifts in and out of focus. I squeeze my left eye shut. I see the tip of the gun rise and fall with my breath and remember what Chris said. Every little movement in your body is magnified in the bullet as it hurtles toward its target. My trembling ripples out to the tip of the gun. I hold my breath and pull the trigger.

As the gun fires, the air compresses around my ears. A gunshot, also known as a “muzzle report,” is a sound in two parts: a vicious hiss is caused by the rapidly expanding gases in the barrel as the bullet exits the muzzle, followed by a whip-like crack as the projectile moves through the air at near supersonic speeds. I am firing a .22 caliber bullet. One of these can travel more than 100 yards if it doesn’t hit something along the way.

My first shot punctures the paper target on the outermost ring in the one o’clock position. I hit the bullseye on my fourth. We reload and I fire six more rounds, double-action this time. I slip into a rhythm. The pauses between the gunshots become shorter as I adapt to the way the muzzle jerks up each time the gun is fired, like a beast twitching in its sleep. Every time I hit the mark, I am rewarded with a jolt of gratification.

“Isn’t this fun?” Chris asks as he turns from the target to face me, his voice rising a pitch in excitement. He is not an effusive person but he seems genuinely impressed with my performance. “This is an accomplishment. It’s you and the gun. A lot of people who badmouth guns have never fired one. Do you think you would be able to get into this?”

“Yeah,” I say noncommittally. “I can see why the precision is very satisfying when you hit the target.” This isn’t untrue. When I hit the bullseye, I felt a rush of relief as if I had passed a test. I am my father’s daughter; my parentage has been confirmed. But I am wary of how addictive this could become.

I gently place the revolver on the table, slightly afraid of it, but also fascinated by its mechanics. A gun is a machine set in motion by the squeezing of the trigger, the cocking of the hammer, the spinning of the cylinder. Sitting there, the revolver looks innocent, devoid of social value, a blank canvas. But then the whole history and politics of guns come pouring back in, and the revolver is no longer just an object. I remember that it is a weapon.

From the moment I walk into his store, I wonder what Chris would have to say about the Sandy Hook shooting. But I am nervous to broach the subject, thinking that gun violence might be a sensitive topic for a gun shop owner. Before I even have the chance to formulate the delicate question in my mind, Chris brings up the event himself.

“That guy wakes up in the morning, kills his mother, goes to school, and shoots innocent kids,” Chris states, matter-of-factly. He doesn’t say “Adam Lanza” or “Sandy Hook,” but I know what he is talking about; everyone in this town would. “I’ve shot at a lot of things—milk cartons, watermelons, stuff like that—and I like to see things exploding. And I’m a rational guy…and I don’t know how this guy goes into a school and shoots these kids…and I don’t want to be gory, but parts were going to be exploding. And how you can do something like that? It’s sick….I’ve been into guns almost all my life and I have no desire to shoot anybody. What gets into someone’s mind that makes them do something like that?” The conversation brings him to his stool behind the countertop where he displays the smaller firearms. He looks at me, warm brown eyes resistant, lips solemnly pursed. A sign hung on the wall above his head reads “Never Mind the Dog, Beware the Owner.”

In January 2004, two young men walked into the first gun shop Chris owned, on Main Street in New Haven, and asked to buy a box of ammunition. Chris was turning around to get it when he felt what he thought was the customer playing with his hair. (Only in hindsight did he realize that it was the barrel of a gun pressed into his scalp.) What are you doing, he asked. Before he got an answer, the second man—who Chris would later find out was a former football star at Hillhouse High School—tackled him and threw him to the ground. The football player pulled Chris’ gun from his holster and jabbed it repeatedly into his buttock, yelling, "Stop moving, stop fucking moving, stop moving.”

A million thoughts flashed through Chris’s mind. He would turn fifty in June. His college-age daughter was about to spend the semester in Italy. He was convinced that the football player and his accomplice planned to shoot him and that he would see neither of those things happen. Absurdly, he remembered a common saying from old movies: If you see their face, they’re going to kill you. And he had seen the faces of those two young men. They didn’t even bother to wear masks.

Chris always tells his students to keep their finger off the trigger until they are ready to fire. He was certain the football player did not observe this wisdom. These men were not practicing safe gun handling. This was an old Western stickup. Fortunately, the safety on his gun was on. If not, it could have gone off while the football player was shoving the muzzle into Chris’s backside. The safety was likely his saving grace. The men emptied out Chris’s gun cabinets and showcases, taking 27 guns, and then left. Chris leapt up from where the football player had pinned him to the floor and ran next door to call the police.

He recounts this story in much the same way as he showed me how to safely load and unload a gun: briskly and without emotion. Chris is a straight talker. His voice never wavers as he tells me about the day he almost died. He stares mortality in the eye with the same unblinking attention that he stares down a target, like a Western hero at a shootout.

His wife was a wreck when she found out that Chris was robbed at gunpoint. But Chris went into work the very next day. “Well, I had to finish the inventory. I had reports that I got to do because of this,” he says. “There's something wrong with me, I guess. It didn't really affect me.”

My father was almost killed by a gun, too. It happened while he was serving out his two-year mandatory conscription term in the Singaporean military. He was an army officer, with all the bravado of a 20-year-old who had several inches on his peers and an excellent rifle arm. He was overseeing shooting practice with reservists when a fool of a trainee, who didn’t have his gun’s safety on, dropped the rifle on its butt. It hit the ground and fired. The bullet ricocheted right past my father’s head and pierced the roof of the command shelter. One step in the wrong direction and I would never have existed.

But if my father were not an army officer, if he were not a national shooter, if he were a seven-year-old child or a schoolteacher in Singapore, he’d never have feared being almost killed by a gun. Singaporeans don’t have the freedom to own and keep guns, but they have the freedom to send their children to school knowing that they will not be shot.

“If people can pass a law to stop this stuff from happening, I’d be in favor of it. But I don’t want my rights violated because someone else went nuts,” Chris says. “In America we have that freedom—we're allowed to own guns, have them in a house. They can be used for self-protection and sport. We have different freedoms from other countries and this was always one of our freedoms.”

I walk out of Chris’s gun shop, past racks of pistols and rifles and revolvers proudly displayed for almost anyone to take home, and find myself questioning what true freedom really is. As I emerge from the basement store, the blazing autumn sky and birds passing soundlessly overhead flood back into view and the concept of “tunnel vision” comes to mind. When a marksman has tunnel vision, they become so fixated on the perceived threat that they are unable to see objects moving in their periphery — innocent bystanders could stumble into the line of fire and they wouldn’t even realize it. A marksman with tunnel vision sees the one masked gunman, but not the 393 million civilian-owned guns in the US that threaten the safety of children, teachers, and civilians.

I think of a man taking aim, his field of vision narrowing to a single crimson bullseye. In the vast majority of states, he is free to walk into a supermarket with his gun sticking out from his jeans, to fast draw, to give his son a shotgun for his eighteenth birthday. But he doesn’t see the freedom that lies in being able to do none of that at all.

Ko Lyn Cheang

is a journalist and writer from Singapore, based in New Haven, CT. She's reported for The New Haven Independent, The Jakarta Post, RICE Media, The Yale Daily News Magazine and The New Journal. She will graduate from Yale College with a philosophy degree in Spring 2021.

All contributions from Ko Lyn Cheang

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