BOSTON — Gail MacLean used to spend nights alone at home in her woodsy community of Wenham, Mass. Now she has a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver to keep her company.
Her decision to buy a handgun was prompted by a spate of break-ins and rapes last spring in the nearby towns. "There was a time when crime just happened down in Boston, but now it happens out in the suburbs," Ms. Maclean says. "I needed something to build my confidence."
Concern about crime is prompting Americans to fortify their homes and businesses as never before, with alarms, motion-sensors, computerized locks, and bomb-sniffing devices. Enrollment in self-defense classes is at an all-time high, and police departments are issuing more concealed-weapon permits than ever. As a result, spending for private security has jumped to $82 billion this year, four times the figure in 1980.
Some criminologists see an intriguing irony here. In many cities the murder rate has fallen to levels not seen in a decade.
The violent crime rate nationwide has dropped dramatically over four straight years. Why then haven't public perceptions kept pace with this improvement in public safety? How do Americans develop their perceptions about crime?
Criminologists can only make educated guesses about why crime rates are dropping, but some say a more security-conscious society - including a rising number of armed citizens - may be helping to deter crime.
Indeed, a flap has erupted over one recent study, which examined crime statistics in the 31 states that have laws allowing citizens to carry concealed firearms. The study found that rates for violent crimes in those states dropped 8.5 percent for murder, 7.5 percent for aggravated assault, 5 percent for rape, and 3 percent for robbery after the laws were enacted.
"Criminals seem to move away from crimes that come into direct contact with their victims, because there is a bigger chance that those victims are armed," says John Lott, an economist at the University of Chicago Law School and co-author of the study. He concedes that the violent crime rate registered a drop everywhere, "but whatever the national trend was, there was an additional 8.5 percent drop in those counties that have conceal-and-carry laws."
Critics say the study is deeply flawed and its results are not trustworthy.
"This was a poorly done study," says Douglas Weil at Handgun Control Inc., a lobbying group in Washington. "In Oregon, for instance, the same law that makes it easier to carry weapons also makes it more difficult to purchase a weapon. Lott doesn't mention this, so we don't know how he knows what actually brought down the crime rate."
Whatever the causal relationship, the increase in the number of armed citizens disturbs some law-enforcement officials and community activists.
"Many law-enforcement administrators would be concerned about any increase in the number of guns on the streets, regardless of how they got there," says David Walchak, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and police chief in Concord, N.H. Even with law-abiding citizens, "it's in the heat of passion that things happen."
Citizens for Safety, an anti- violence group in Boston, says citizens don't need guns to make their communities safer. An alternative is to organize neighbors and force city agencies to provide more police protection, says spokesman Harlan Jones.
But spending on guns is a fraction of overall expenditures on security. Americans now spend almost twice as much on private security as they do on public law enforcement.
Included in this investment is the hiring of security guards to patrol wealthy gated communities low-income housing projects, airports, and office buildings. Some cities, such as Baltimore, have hired security firms to ferry prisoners to and from the courthouse. While security guards can be an adjunct to public law enforcement, police officials say, they tend to be modestly trained, poorly paid, and ill-equipped.
"Policing is the most basic service that government provides," says Chief Walchak. "We would not feel comfortable taking that role and privatizing it. Officers should be under civilian control."
If falling crime rates have not assuaged Americans' concerns about safety, there may be an explanation. Some crime-rate categories are still high by historical standards. For instance, a residential burglary occurs somewhere in America every 10 seconds; one-third of these occur in homes that are occupied, according to the FBI.
In addition, crimes committed by youths, in particular, make more people feel uneasy, polls show. The rate of homicides by juveniles jumped 172 percent between 1985 and 1994, although it has declined since then. For teenagers in Boston, the chance of being stabbed or shot last year was 645 per 100,000.
Citizens are regularly bombarded by such statistics via the press, local television newscasts, and realistic cop shows. Many community activists and anticrime groups say television, in particular, exaggerates the crime problem and gives it more prominence than it deserves.
"While the number of crimes has gone down, the impact of these shows is powerful," says Mr. Jones, the Boston activist.
The popular "COPS" program on the Fox network, for instance, puts cameramen into squad cars that respond to domestic disputes and drug deals. "Rightly or wrongly, perception is reality. It depends on where you're coming from," says executive producer John Langley. "We operate in high-crime areas. Maybe the crime rate has come down in some areas, but we haven't seen it."
If anyone has skewed the crime perception, it is local TV news shows, Mr. Langley adds, noting that Los Angeles stations regularly lead their programs with the latest splashy crime. "I'm not even criticizing them. I just want to differentiate us from them. We're with the cops, and what happens, happens."
In Wenham, MacLean says the local press does a good job on crime reporting. "I don't think the local papers have made this bigger than it really is," she says. "If it's there, it's there."
Ask her about her gun, and MacLean says it's not under the pillow, but she could get to it quickly. Her uneasiness around guns is gone. "Now friends call me Annie, you know, like Annie Oakley."