My ears perked when I heard the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre mention Richmond, VA, during Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence.
Not once. Not twice. At least three times LaPierre went out of his way to namedrop Virginia’s capital. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, even sang its praises.
My hometown was having its big moment in the spotlight:
“ ‘Project Exile’ worked in Richmond, VA.”
“When [Asst. Federal Prosecutor] Dave Schiller and ‘Project Exile’ cleaned up Richmond years ago…”
Sen. Sessions: “Richmond was a great model.”
“Richmond,” “great,” and “model”: Three words I’d never heard in the same sentence before. But there these men were, applauding the city for lowering the crime rate via federal prosecution of gun offenses, “Project Exile.”
“What they started to do,” LaPierre explains, “is they caught a drug dealer with a gun, they put up signs all over this city saying ‘if you have an illegal gun in Richmond, under federal law you’re going to be prosecuted 100% of the time.’ Drug dealers, gangs and felons stopped carrying guns.”
My ears perked up again. Something was wrong. The way they were telling it: Federal prosecutions—literally, making a federal case out of things—helped lower the murder rate in Richmond, a perpetual Top of the Pops when it came to per capita crime. And that was it: case closed. No need to pay attention to the stats behind the curtain.
To be fair, there’s a something of a bipartisan consensus around that version of events. For instance, Tim Kaine is a big bad Virginia Senator and Friend of Obama (FOO) now. But in the Before Time, he was the Democratic mayor of Richmond (which at that time meant you held the scissors during the Grand Openings). And Mayor Tim Kaine used “Exile” to tout his crime-fighting ways in his 2005 gubernatorial run.
Still, LaPierre was the one in front of a national audience (that means D.C. and New York); so let’s stick with him.
“Project Exile” was, as one of the few studies to grade it’s performance suggests, a “prison sentence enhancement.” In other words, this wasn’t about new officers patrolling the streets for no-goodniks. No. Drug dealers or felons or domestic abusers caught with a firearm faced a sentence in federal prison.
As this Virginia Dept. of Criminal Justice Services report indicates, “Exile does not prosecute gun violence per se, but rather prosecutes cases in which a felon is in possession of a firearm.” The plan was exceptionally well publicized on billboards, in print and on television—“An illegal gun will get you five years in federal prison”—with the theory being that fear would be the ultimate Robocop.
So did crime rates go down? Yes they did. Was it due to “Project Exile?” Well, that’s where it gets a bit hazy.
- Crime went down nationally in the late ’90s (thank you ’90s boom). In fact, one of the authors of the “prison enhancement study” told the Judiciary Committee eight years ago that Richmond’s crime rates would have come down “even in the absence of the program.”
- “Exile” also gets the benefit of starting during a one-year spike in the violent crime rate. Rates were slowly receding from their highs in 1994-1996; in 1997 they spiked. “Exile” began later that year, and afterwards rates began to fall again, albeit more dramatically.
- Oh, and did I mention that, “One of the primary concerns raised is the issue of Project Exile being heralded a success in the absence of evaluation.”? Probably should have mentioned that first.
A study (really a study of studies) suggests there is “fairly strong circumstantial case for Exile’s impact” on crime rates. But there’s a fairly strong circumstantial case that a program similar to “Exile” worked in Rochester, NY, while the economy was humming along, and then didn’t once it wasn’t.
“Attorney General Eric Holder, during the Richmond program, called it a cookie cutter approach to solving crime that he didn’t really have a lot of enthusiasm about it.”
Well, are you really going to base your defense on the phrase “fairly strong circumstantial case?” Would Jack McCoy?
But even if “Project Exile” were to one day be thoroughly evaluated—a big “if” as defunding gun studies has always been a passion of the NRA—and found to be a complete success, there’s a new problem: We can’t afford it. Increased incarceration is just too expensive. Turning every city into a Richmond, VA, could empty coffers faster than you can say “broken windows”—or force federal prosecutors to devote an excessive amount of time to individual gun cases.
Also, I don’t know how people would handle all those Confederate Civil War monuments.