In the aftermath of Sunday’s assault and rape of a 73-year-old Waterville woman, police Chief Joe Massey said the attack makes a good case for people arming themselves.

But Massey said he didn’t know whether the victim could have used a gun or whether the attack could have been prevented, and experts agree that there aren’t clear-cut answers on the broader issue of gun ownership and crime prevention.

Even so, Massey said he’s raising the issue of responsible gun ownership after the attack.

“It’s one of those cases where you could make a good argument for citizens arming themselves,” Massey said. “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’s words, both praised and criticized, are part of a long-simmering gun debate across the nation. Criminal experts say the data is mixed on whether increased gun ownership affects crime, and they say more research is needed.

In the Waterville case, Mark Daniel Halle, 32, was arrested Sunday night after a 20-hour investigation. Halle, who is being held in lieu of $225,000 cash bail at the Kennebec County jail in Augusta, was charged with 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.

Massey said that after the assault, the attacker demanded the woman take a shower and threatened to kill her if she called the police.

The brutality of the sudden, 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.

“And this was one of those cases — because of the vulnerability of the victim, being 73 years old, living alone, the level of violence and the spontaneous or randomness of the attack — I think makes people realize that there are those folks out there who commit this level of violence on innocent, defenseless victims.”

‘WILD WEST FANTASY’

Massey’s remarks, however, have concerned 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 police 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.”

Massey said he hasn’t seen any clear data that can prove the effectiveness of home gun ownership on crime.

Waterville’s per capita rate for major crimes is similar to those of Maine’s other cities, according to the latest statewide data available from 2014, collected by the state Department of Public Safety.

Waterville, population 16,182, had a per capita rate for reported rapes of 1 per 10,000, the same as Lewiston, population 36,299; while Augusta, population 18,705, had a rate of 0.5, the same as the statewide rate.

Waterville had a murder rate of 0.6 per 10,000, compared with 0.8 for Lewiston and 0.09 statewide. Aggravated assaults were higher per capita in Waterville (60 per 10,000) and Augusta (70 per 10,000) compared with just 3 per 10,000 statewide.

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.”

In 2014, a U.S. District Court judge ruled against gun control legislation in Chicago. The case included a rebuttal report from Gary Kleck, a professor at Florida State University, that concluded owning a gun can help keep a person safer.

Kleck, citing several studies, concluded that “crime victims who used guns to protect themselves were found to be less likely to suffer injury after taking their self-protective actions and less likely to lose property than victims who did not resist at all, victims who resisted by force but not with a gun, or victims who resisted in non-forceful ways.”

But a new Boston University study based on 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, which they called femicide.

The study, published last month in the journal Violence and Gender by researchers Michael Siegel and Emily Rothman, says that for “each 10 percentage point increase in state-level firearm ownership in a state, the female firearm-related homicide rate increases” by 10.2 percent, the homicide rate for women involving people they know increases by 7.2 percent and the overall rate of murdered women goes up 7.3 percent.

“There is a specific risk of non-stranger, firearm-related femicide associated with the prevalence of firearm ownership in a state,” the study states.

An editorial published Wednesday in The Boston Globe cites the BU study in arguing that gun ownership does not make women safer, but instead puts them at greater risk of being murdered when there is a gun in their home. The editorial, though, acknowledges a lack of other evidence-based research about firearms and domestic violence and calls on state and federal officials to make such data collection a higher priority.

Butts, the research director at John Jay College, pointed to a published analysis of state-level variations in firearm homicide, also by Siegel. Published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2013, that analysis 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.”

TAKING RESPONSIBILITY

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.

“Sometimes, depending on a particular person, they may find it difficult handling a weapon,” Massey said. “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. Otherwise it’s not going to do you much good.”

Bob Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association and a retired South Portland police chief, said neither he nor the association has a stance on whether a homeowner armed with a gun is a good deterrent against criminals.

Schwartz said the association’s membership believes in the right to bear arms and in good background checks.

“I think anybody can have a gun and has a right to protect themselves,” Schwartz said. “There have been cases around the state and country where people have had guns (in their house) and have used them. I have no problem with people having firearms and with protecting their rights, so long as they are within the law.”

As an example of the complicated issues involved, Schwartz pointed to a recent case involving Harvey Lembo, of Rockland, who shot and injured an intruder breaking into his bedroom apartment on Sept. 1. Lembo, who uses a wheelchair, had bought the revolver the day before, after his apartment had been broken into several times. He was not charged in the shooting because police determined he acted in self-defense.

But the owner of the apartment complex later told Lembo he would be evicted unless Lembo relinquished his firearms because it violated the housing complex’s rules. Lembo filed a lawsuit alleging that giving up his handgun would leave him defenseless. The case remains in court.

Jack Rinchich, of West Virginia, president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, said in an interview Thursday that as a former police officer who was a police chief for 40 years, he’s seen the positive and negative effects of firearms in households.

“I’ve seen accidental (gun) discharges in the home, even among police officers,” Rinchich said. “And under duress, you still don’t know how you’re going to respond. And even with the best of training, the potential is there for collateral damage.”

Rinchich has personal experience. In the 1970s, he arrived at his home to find it had been broken into and the burglars had taken some of his guns. The only thing that prevented a shootout was that he had his police radio on his belt, and when it sounded off, the burglars bolted.

Rinchich said it’s a reminder that such an incident can “happen to anyone at any time,” and “I would hate to think these individuals would overpower me and that I didn’t have the capability to defend myself and my family.”

“I’m a strong supporter of having a weapon in your home for safety, but you need to have proper training for that weapon and know personal safety,” he said. “As long as those reasons are met, where a gun is also secured properly and you’re proficient with your firearm, I have no problem with that.”

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT

Massey said he received several emails and calls from area residents following news reports of such attacks, inquiring about gun ownership. He said he doesn’t advise people who ask to arm themselves, but rather will point them toward proper training and answer questions.

“For me, one thing is very clear that is hard to dispute: If you happen to be in a situation where someone is about to kill you with a dangerous weapon, whether that be a gun or a knife, if you had access to a firearm at that point, it would at least give you the opportunity to defend yourself,” Massey said. “I don’t think there’s any dispute about that. I think most people, if they were asked if you were ever faced with a life or death situation, where someone was about to take your life, … I think most people would say at that point, ‘I would like to have access to a firearm.'”

“But I think it’s a personal choice, whether people arm themselves, and with that comes a lot of responsibility.”

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. “In the wake of a horrific attack, the chief was merely pointing out a fact we all know — armed citizens trained to use their firearms are better poised to defend themselves against violent crime, and criminals commit less crime after they’ve been shot.”

City Manager Mike Roy acknowledged that the issue is “part of a much bigger debate” in the country about gun use, but said he wouldn’t express personal views since his job is to carry out the direction of the City Council.

“I have no problem with Joe (Massey) as police chief expressing these views, especially about responsible gun ownership,” Roy said.

Massey said that while he offers advice to people who choose to arm themselves, preventing crimes ultimately comes down to community involvement.

He pointed to police involvement with the South End Neighborhood Association, consisting of residents who work to improve the neighborhood and deter crime.

Like gun ownership, it’s a question of personal responsibility, he said.

“One of the biggest factors is citizens willing to take responsibility to reducing crime, to have hundreds of thousands of eyes and ears … that has a huge impact,” Massey said. “I think that there’s no better insurance than a good neighbor.”