Waterville police chief Joe Massey says the assault and rape of a 73-year-old city woman on Sunday makes a good case for why citizens should arm themselves as a defense against crime.
“It’s one of those cases where you could make a good argument for citizens arming themselves,” Massey said Thursday. “Someone said, ‘A gun in hand is better than someone on the phone telling you police are on their way.’ In cases like this, you wish the homeowner had a weapon and was capable of defending themselves.”
Massey acknowledged that he doesn’t know whether the victim could have used a gun or whether the attack could have been prevented, but said the attack has spurred him to raise the issue of responsible gun ownership.
Criminal experts, however, say the data is mixed on whether increased gun ownership deters crime, and they say more research is needed.
Regardless, Massey’s words tapped into a long-simmering national debate about guns and crime.
In the Waterville case, Mark Daniel Halle, 32, is being held in lieu of $225,000 cash bail at the Kennebec County jail in Augusta on felony counts of gross sexual assault, burglary and aggravated assault.
The woman told police that she awoke to a loud bang shortly before 5 a.m. Sunday and was confronted by a man dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and armed with what appeared to be a handgun. She said the man forced her back into the bedroom and put a pillow case over her head, sexually assaulted her, then beat her with the gun. The woman suffered multiple bruises from the beating and was later hospitalized.
After the assault, the attacker demanded the woman take a shower and threatened to kill her if she called the police, Massey said.
The brutality of the apparently random attack shocked and disturbed Massey, who said the case illustrates how “there are monsters living amongst us” who commit violent acts against the innocent.
He said the case should spark discussion about responsible and properly trained gun ownership for people who make the decision to arm themselves.
“I’m not advocating one way or the other,” Massey said. “But as we know, over the last couple of years, gun control and private gun ownership has been a hot topic.
Massey’s remarks, however, concern at least one criminal research expert.
Jeffrey Butts, director of the research and evaluation center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the Waterville chief’s comments are “typical of the immediate gut reaction to horrific crimes.”
“It is easy to indulge in the Wild West fantasy that crime would be deterred if we were all armed all the time, and undoubtedly this is true,” Butts said Thursday. “But far more crimes would be created than prevented by widespread gun ownership.”
John Shane, professor of law and political science at John Jay, acknowledged that information is mixed on the prevalence of guns and their effect on crime.
He said more research is needed with better measures – particularly studies on how many crimes in progress were stopped by a victim who legally used a firearm.
“If someone is trained and legitimately owns a firearm and knows how to use it, then it could be valuable as a means to personal defense,” Shane said. “The reverse is also true; someone who is not trained or who is careless and leaves the firearm accessible to children may increase the likelihood of an accident or intentional misuse.”
A recent Boston University study based of 33 years of data from across the country found that higher rates of gun ownership by women correspond with higher rates of women who are murdered by people they know.
Butts, the research director at John Jay College, pointed to an analysis of state-level variations in firearm homicide published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2013 that concludes there is a “robust correlation between higher levels of gun ownership and higher firearm homicide rates.” The study didn’t determine a cause, but it noted that states with higher gun ownership rates had disproportionately large numbers of deaths from firearm-related homicides.
“It is widely accepted among researchers that increasing gun ownership leads to more suicides and homicides committed with firearms,” Butts said Thursday. “If threatened with deadly force, we would all like to have a gun; but arming all potential victims would also vastly increase the number of innocent people killed with guns.”
Massey doesn’t know if the woman in the Waterville attack would be comfortable with a firearm and he doesn’t recommend everyone get one.
“Again, that personal choice to arm yourself, you need to take personal responsibility to make sure you know how to use that weapon properly, that you feel comfortable you can shoot it,” he said. “Otherwise it’s not going to do you much good.”
Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro said Thursday that Massey and Waterville police have shown their top priority is the safety of Waterville residents.
“I commend him (Massey) for opening up an important conversation,” Isgro said.