But, a new shooter does not need a 'project gun.' There is enough to try to master, without dealing with reliability issues. I usually always recommend an XD-9 or Glock 26 for a first subcompact to a novice shooter. They are both accurate, totally reliable, and easy to learn to shoot well. They are the same size and grip angle, so it doesn't really matter which one you choose. The XD has the grip safety, if you feel you need that extra assurance, and it doesn't hurt a thing, as far as shoot-ability.
I had pretty much the same ideas about what I wanted in a gun before really handling or shooting any of them. My price point was about $100 less than I ended up spending. Originally, I wasn't looking for a compact. Anyway, the first one I shot in my search was the M&P9. It didn't have the external safety that I had to have, no decocker, and more money than I wanted to spend. But it just felt so good. I decided during my search that I would be getting my CWP soon so I started looking at the compact models. After all the guns I shot, I ended up going with my M&P9c. External safety is a non-issue for me now.
first off, i lost patience and only read about half the replies so if I am repeating then I apologize.
For an inexpensive mid size with decocker and safety check out the ruger P94 and P93 models (both discontinued but plenty online for sale).
For economical guns i recommend a company called cdnn that does overstocks, discontinued models, police buybacks, etc.
But I think you need to do some test firing of a few guns via rentals (even if they don't have the exact models you are looking for it will give you an idea whcih features you like) and hit a good size gun show to just feel up and try on a bunch of different models.
I would also recommend a basic handguns 101 type class.
S&W Sigma 9mm VE, 16+1 cap, DAO, no safety to fuss with, the 10# trigger would be next to impossible to accidently discharge, rugged, 100% reliable, born in the USA for under $350. delivered and in stock froms Buds. I shoot my neighbors M&P 9C all the time and the trigger is too light for a gun with no safety for me. The Sigma is not a tack driver rather a self defense, no nonsense weapon and it does it well. If SHTF nobody will notice a 10# trigger pull. I carry mine daily in a Kholster IWB.