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'IT'S just not Austin," insists hair stylist Sherri Lynn about the recent spate of violent, seemingly random crimes in the city. But others wonder if drugs, the recession, or just plain urban growth has ended the days of unlocked front doors for good.

"Everybody thought of Austin as a nice, safe hometown," says Cathy Allen, owner of Austin Alarm Associates. "Now they're beginning to see it as a major city, with major concerns and major problems."

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In a survey last month, crime worried more respondents than any other issue. A year earlier, a mere 5 percent named crime as the city's leading problem.

"Pretty startling," says pollster Tom Jukam at IntelliQuest Inc. He points out, however, that the poll followed one week after the city was rocked by the as-yet unsolved murder of four teenage girls in a yogurt shop.

But that incident was followed quickly by more violence: a couple murdered in their home, a man gunned down while pumping gas, a woman kidnapped at a car wash. Two serial rapists remain at large.

"Austin still continues to be a safe city, despite the fact that we've recently had several high-profile vicious crimes," says Assistant Police Chief George Phifer.

Statistically speaking, he's right. Data released Friday show that crime actually declined 2 percent last year, even as other cities broke records in the murder category. In 1990, department statistics show, Austin ranked 51st out of 59 cities larger than 250,000 in violent crimes. In crimes against property, however, it ranked ninth.

One difference now is the rise of narcotics. Thirty-five open-air drug markets reportedly flourish in the city. During the last session of the Legislature, a representative from Houston was found dead in his apartment from a crack-cocaine overdose.

Firsthand exposure to crime has recently boosted the number of first-time buyers at Just Guns. "They all have a story," owner Rob Key says.

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"It's not just guns," adds weapons dealer Joe McBride. "They're buying mace and tear gas and stun guns and everything else."

Ms. Allen says all dealers in security systems are "extremely busy right now." Especially unusual is that apartment owners here, normally tight-fisted about adding amenities, are purchasing systems to protect their tenants. Austin, she says, is not "this sleepy, happy little town anymore."

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