The schoolteacher arrived at the Long Beach Pistol Range and unpacked not pistols but rifles. "I have a .22 Winchester pump action, a .22 Savage bolt action and a .22 Marlin semi-automatic," Diana Wheeler said.
Wheeler, 43, has learned about guns in the past few months. Shooting, suddenly, has become her sport of choice.
"I'm getting more confidence," she said. A short, blue-jeaned woman, she took her position along the range's low-ceiling firing area that smelled of gunpowder.
"The first time you shoot is such a combination of fright and thrill," Wheeler said. "After a few times it becomes more thrilling than frightening. The fear is still there, but it's turning into a healthy respect for guns."
Down the line, heavy-set Harry Conroy held a .45-caliber automatic with both hands and aimed at a bull's-eye 25 yards away at the end of a coyote-infested grass field.
His hands trembled slightly as he squeezed the trigger. A deafening crack, which ear muffs softened to a jarring thump, shattered the air. Then a metallic tinkling sounded as the bullet's brass casing bounced on the concrete floor near Conroy's feet. Then there was silence.
When the acrid puff of smoke had cleared, Conroy looked through the scope that was attached to the lid of his gun case. What was perceived by the unaided eye as a speck was brought into astonishing focus as a large ragged hole where the unseen bullet had ripped through the target. It was up and to the right of center.
"I'm usually able to put 98% of my shots in the bull," Conroy said. "That last cup of coffee didn't help at all."
Women Hope to Change to Pistols
Meanwhile, Wheeler and her friend, Magdalena Del-Rio, 31, working their way up to the high-caliber pistols they hope to shoot soon, shot their .22 rifles. They popped benignly in comparison with Conroy's gun and most of the others.
"At first I was nervous with these high-powered magnums," Wheeler said, referring to some of the guns down the line. "It's loud but once you concentrate, it's relaxing. My family thinks I'm crazy."
Junior high physical education teachers in Long Beach, Wheeler and Del-Rio were introduced to guns by Del-Rio's brother-in-law during a recent trip to the desert to shoot. "He wanted to know if we wanted to have some fun," Wheeler said.
But Wheeler did not associate guns with fun. "I was always scared of guns, because you hear negative things about guns . . . gangs and guns," she said.
After that trip, the women bought gun books. They decided to start with rifles.
"It was a challenge just cleaning them," Del-Rio said.
The city-owned, public outdoor range adjoins the Long Beach Police Academy range set well back from Carson Street near the Long Beach Naval Hospital at the northeastern corner of the city. The range attracts about 600 people a week, according to range master Steve Rolland.
"We provide a safe environment for people to become familiar with firearms," said Rolland, a reserve police officer in Brea who has operated the range for three months. He said there has not been an accident under his guidance, either at the Long Beach range or at one in Orange that he operated for almost three years.
The Long Beach range has 100 shooting positions, half of them 50 yards from the targets and half 25 yards away.
Shooters select their paper targets, either bull's-eyes with concentric circles or human silhouettes, staple them to cardboard and walk to the target pit, a long corridor sheltered from the line of fire where the targets are set in frames and hoisted into view.
Beyond the targets is a towering, rusting steel deflector that once was a battleship hull. Bullets, though, are never heard ricocheting off it following their 1,000 feet-per-second journeys. By the time the sound of discharge is gone, a bullet has hit the deflector and fallen to the ground.
From the pit, one can look up and watch holes appear, as if by magic, in the targets as bits of paper and cardboard flutter away in the breeze.
The shooters, most of whom were casually dressed men, set up at their positions as if at a workbench, and tinkered. In Conroy's gun case, in addition to .45, .22 and .38 revolvers, were cartridges, screwdrivers, a cleaning rod, oil and rags. Affixed to the lid were a scope and patches representing the National Rifle Assn. and California Rifle and Pistol Assn.
A retired Navy chief petty officer from Lakewood with tattooed arms and a gray mustache, Conroy, 63, was on pistol and rifle teams in the service. But his gun experience can be traced to his hunting roots.
He looked down the line at his fellow shooters.
"It's strictly a hobby," he said. "I used to play golf, but I prefer this. There are a lot of retired military (people) here. And grandpas bring grandsons. It's a good safe place to come. We shoot as much (bull) as we do the lead. None of us is Wyatt Earp."
Conroy retrieved his target. It had not been his day.
"Some of these guys can really lay 'em in there," he said.