WASHINGTON -- Nailing down specifics about Donald Trump’s policies is exhausting. He makes things up, changes his mind and neglects details. One of the six issues he's actually fleshed out on his campaign website concerns gun rights, where he says he will combat gun violence by bringing back measures like Project Exile, a 1990s-era state-federal partnership.
Trump doesn’t seem to realize that Project Exile never really ended -- it still exists, and parts of it have expanded nationwide. His proposal doesn't really make sense, but it does serve his purposes: It focuses on cities, where his overwhelmingly white base doesn't live. It locks up "drug dealers and gang members," not "law-abiding gun-owners." It doesn't address other routine forms of gun violence, like shootings by toddlers, family members, domestic abusers, countless legal gun owners, or mass shooters such as Dylann Roof and Elliot Rodger. And for people like Trump, it also makes a great racist dog-whistle. (The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
"Violent crime in cities like Baltimore, Chicago and many others is out of control," Trump warns in his online pitch for resurrecting the still-extant program, citing two of the American cities with the highest number of black residents. "Drug dealers and gang members are given a slap on the wrist and turned loose on the street."
Trump's strategy is pretty transparent, said Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "By framing America’s gun violence problem as a black problem concentrated entirely in urban areas," he said, Trump and groups like the NRA "can get policymakers to ignore a huge percentage of the gun deaths happening in their communities."
Project Exile, part of a national wave of tough-on-crime measures, was launched by the U.S. Attorney's office in Richmond, Virginia and other agencies to reduce violent crime by cracking down on illegal gun possession. Shootings and homicides had spiked in Richmond throughout the late '80s and early '90s. The city was heavily armed, and many of those guns were being used in crimes.
The program created a partnership between state and federal law enforcement that pushed for certain firearms cases to be prosecuted in federal court, where defendants faced harsher prison sentences. The possibility of getting locked up without bail or the possibility of parole and being shipped to a federal prison far from home -- or "exiled" -- was supposed to convince people to put down their weapons. The initiative included a public information campaign warning Richmonders that “an illegal gun will get you five years in federal prison.”
Framing America’s gun violence problem as a black problem ... can get policymakers to ignore a huge percentage of the gun deaths happening in their communities. Ladd Everitt, Coalition to Stop Gun Violence
Concerns about racial disparities plagued the program. In 1999, the American Civil Liberties Union argued against a proposal to recreate Project Exile in every U.S. attorney’s office across the country. The ACLU noted the initiative had come under fire for clogging federal courts, and that federal prosecutors used Project Exile to skew the jury pool and keep African-Americans from serving on juries. (A federal jury pool would likely be much whiter than one drawn from the Richmond area, for example.) It also targeted communities of color and encouraged people to turn in their neighbors, the group said.
“Based on the way those programs are implemented ... you are going to have a significantly higher number of minorities, specifically black and African-American minorities, negatively impacted," said Robyn McDougle, an associate professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University. But those communities were also more likely to be victimized by violent crime, she added, so focusing resources there made sense.
Before Project Exile, Richmond had failed to limit or deter violent crime because criminals thought they wouldn't face serious jail time, McDougle said. "They used to joke about it and they used to call it their vacation," she said.
In about the first year of the program, authorities seized 440 firearms and indicted 372 people for federal gun violations. And crime went down: In 1997, when the program started, Richmond police counted 139 homicides, enough to make the city the murder capital of the U.S. Two years later, the number of annual homicides fell to 72.
Supporters celebrated Project Exile's success. “Drug dealers, gangs and felons stopped carrying guns,” NRA chief Wayne Lapierre said in 2013, at a congressional hearing where he repeatedly touted the program. The NRA was a big backer of Project Exile in the '90s, and it remains one of the few gun enforcement measures that the group regularly supports.
Trump claims the initiative was "tremendous" and plans to "bring back and expand” programs like it. But Project Exile has, in fact, already expanded significantly since it was rolled out in Richmond nearly 20 years ago.
"Once it became popular, many people adopted it," said David Whaley, a Richmond attorney who has represented defendants in Exile cases. "You really don't implement it, because it's what the federal law is -- it's just enforcing the federal law.”
The core components of Project Exile remain in place in a number of cities. State and federal prosecutors across the country, including in Baltimore and Chicago, are still working together to prosecute firearms-related cases in federal court, where they're able to seek longer sentences. But criminal justice experts are divided on whether the program was fair to minority communities -- or whether it even worked.
In 2003, two professors published a study arguing that homicide rates in Richmond would have decreased anyway, because the city had unusually large increases in gun homicides through the mid-1990s, and cities with "larger-than-average increases in gun homicide rates subsequently experience unusually large declines."
Another study published in 2005 offered a more favorable analysis of Project Exile. Using a longer time frame and controlling for other influences, researchers found Richmond’s firearm homicide rate fell more rapidly after the program was implemented than in other large U.S. cities. The researchers characterized their findings as "fairly strong circumstantial case for Exile’s impact," but couldn't say with certainty that the drop wasn't due to "unmeasured factors."
David Baugh, a Virginia defense attorney, remains unconvinced. “It was very bad, it was very oppressive, and it was targeting African-Americans,” he said. Baugh says he left his job with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Richmond in 1983 after he questioned why black defendants were being sentenced to more time than white defendants.
He told HuffPost that with Project Exile, members of law enforcement were also prone to do more favors for white defendants.
“Whenever you have these draconian laws," he added, "They don't apply to everybody."