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Stray Bullet Raises New Concerns Over Pistol Range : Safety: Facility passes police inspection after car is hit. Operator moves quickly to install more safeguards.


LONG BEACH — Richard and Karen Covey had stopped their car and were talking to friends when a .38-caliber bullet slammed into the passenger door and fell to the ground.

"My son just started screaming," said Karen Covey, whose 1-year-old was in the back seat. She described the sound as a "rock hitting your car on a freeway but much louder."

The Coveys' car was about a quarter of a mile north of the Long Beach Public Pistol Range, which is on Carson Street just west of the San Gabriel River Freeway.

Shooters at the outdoor range fire toward the north, and officials conceded that the bullet probably came from the facility. They have paid the Coveys $400 to repair the damage to their car.

FRE Enterprises Inc. of Long Beach, which leases and runs the city-owned range, also installed new safety barriers to prevent other bullets from escaping.

But the May 20 incident has prompted city officials to question whether the range can operate safely in a highly developed area. A community garden, a park and the Lakewood Equestrian Center are just north of the range. Homes are about 1,000 yards away.

The Long Beach Police Department conducted a safety inspection of the range last week and on Tuesday gave it a mixed endorsement before the City Council.

"While range safety is adequate for the existing facility, 100% assurance cannot be provided that a bullet will not escape," Deputy Chief Robert Luman told the council.

The City Council members apparently were satisfied, if a bit uneasy, and took no action to close the range. There have been no injuries.

"I'm really skeptical because we've had these reports and inspections before," Councilman Les Robbins said afterward. "They've been given a clean bill of health, and we've had more near-misses."

City Atty. John R. Calhoun has advised the council that the city faces no liability if a stray bullet from the Public Pistol Range injures someone. As the leaseholder, FRE Enterprises has full responsibility, he said.

Nevertheless, Robbins, whose district includes the range, said the FRE lease expires in August and he may oppose continued operation of the facility.

Karen Covey, a Lakewood resident, said the council should have shut down the operation immediately. "I can't believe the city of Long Beach is letting this happen," she said.

City officials say they hope to eliminate the problem by building an indoor range on nearby city property, south of Willow Street and just west of the San Gabriel River Freeway. The city already has requested bids from private firms to build and run the range, City Manager James C. Hankla said.

The general manager of the Public Pistol Range, Dick Hill, said his firm has moved quickly to meet the city's safety demands and that the range poses little risk. Hill added that his firm wants to run the new range as well.

The Pistol Range was built by the city in 1959. The Police Pistol Club of Long Beach, a nonprofit group that included local officers, operated the range until it was leased to the for-profit FRE Enterprises in 1988.

Between 30 and 70 people a day line up in booths to fire pistols and rifles at targets and to take handgun safety classes, Hill said. Law enforcement officers, including U.S. Customs officers and prison guards, account for nearly half of the people who train at the range, Hill said.

Long Beach police officers train at their own range, which is adjacent to the Public Pistol Range.

Shooters at the public range fire north at targets that are set against steel and reinforced earthen backstops.

A number of bullets have strayed from the range in recent years, according to city reports. Those bullets were linked to the public range and not the police range, because the police range is aimed in the opposite direction.

People who use the Long Beach Community Garden to the north of the pistol range reported finding three bullets in garden plots in December, 1990. In April, 1991, they reported that a bullet struck a bus shelter near the garden and another landed next to a gardener. A third bullet reportedly whizzed past the head of another gardener.

Two more bullets fell in March, 1992, just missing an adult and a child.

Bullets also reportedly have been found on the roofs of homes north of the shooting range.

The Police Department inspected the range after the incidents and suggested improvements to barriers and changes in shooting procedures, records indicate.

Range officials were cooperative and made the improvements, Deputy Chief Luman said.

After the last incident, range officials spent about $4,000 installing a barrier lined with steel to prevent bullets from heading upward from the firing line and leaving the range. Some types of shooting, such as firing at bowling pins and metal targets, have been eliminated to reduce the possibility of ricochets that could cause bullets to leave the range, said Hill, the range manager.

Some improvement work remains, including grading the dirt between the firing line and targets to prevent ricochets. Hill said the work would be completed within the next two weeks.

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