[3/20/17] While President Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions (shown) was in Richmond, Virginia, last week addressing federal, state, and local law-enforcement officials, he said he planned to promote a 20-year-old “solution” to gun violence: Project Exile: “We need to enforce our gun laws; we will put bad people behind bars,” he stated, adding that Project Exile is “a very discreet, effective policy” and that he will “promote it nationwide.”
If Project Exile worked so well 20 years ago in Richmond, why did the city back away from it in 2006? And why haven’t scores of other cities adopted it since then and praised its performance? Additionally, why have the NRA and the Brady Campaign endorsed it while groups such as Gun Owners of America (GOA) and Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO) have come out against it?
When it was initially implemented in 1997 in Richmond, the city had seen its murder rate skyrocket. In 1996, there were 112 murders, which put it in the top five cities in the country for its murder rate per thousand population. The next year Richmond experienced 140 murders.
The guiding principle of the project was to remove from the streets those were who were most likely to commit gun violence: those possessing both a firearm and a criminal record. This included convicted felons caught with a gun as well as those who committed crimes using a gun. The idea behind it was that an individual caught would be tried in federal court rather than state or local court, as the federal penalties were much tougher: five years in jail minimum with no allowance for bail or early parole. Further, upon conviction, the individual was moved to a federal prison to serve his sentence, often many miles away from Richmond — hence the name “Exile.”
The National Rifle Association has been a supporter of the program since its inception, as has the Brady Campaign, as both groups saw it, on paper at least, as a way to reduce crime that appeared to be getting out of control. NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre stated, “By prosecuting [criminals violating gun laws it] prevent[s] the drug dealer, the gang member and the felon from committing the next crime … [you] leave the good people alone and lock up the bad people and dramatically cut crime.”
Initially, Project Exile looked as though it might work. In 1998, the first full year after its implementation in Richmond, murders dropped from 140 (1997) to 94. By 2001 murders had dropped to 69, an astonishing reduction of 50 percent.