In gun rights push, Trump embraces Project Exile

Donald Trump wants to bring back a Clinton-era gun-crime program used in the capital of Virginia. 

In his white paper on the Second Amendment, Republican presidential candidate Trump embraces Richmond's "Project Exile," calling it a "tremendous program." The billionaire real estate deal maker says the program -- which used technical gun-possession offenses as a means of shifting violent-crime prosecutions to federal courts --  needs to be brought back and expanded.

"Project Exile," a partnership among federal, state and local law enforcement officials, began in 1997. The goal, according to the U.S. Attorney's office for the Eastern District of Virginia, was "to reduce Richmond's homicide rate by detaining dangerous armed felons prior to trial and prosecuting them in Federal court."

The program drew both broad support and broad criticism. The National Rifle Association joined the Brady Campaign in backing Project Exile. But many second amendment advocates and civil rights groups objected. The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a politically active gun rights group, was strongly against the measure. 

During Project Exile's first 10 months of operation, homicides in Richmond declined 36 percent, according to the U.S. attorney. Although the program got much of the credit at the time, a 2003 report from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services cautioned that other factors may have contributed to the decline. The department pointed to an increase in the number of federal drug prosecutions, Virginia's abolition of parole, and "an initiative to reduce the backlog of fugitives wanted for violent offenses in the area."

Although Project Exile was transitioned to a state-level program a few years later, the original model has attracted attention from officials around the country.

Virginia Citizens Defense League president Phil Van Cleave told AMI Newswire that the league's opposition has not diminished over the years.

"What we didn’t like about Project Exile is that it singled out guns for special treatment," he said. "Murder is murder. Why does the tool used matter in the sentencing or punishment?"

Van Cleave also objected to the mandatory minimum prison sentences that were a key part of the Exile program. "Somebody who wrote a hot check 20 years ago, or got caught after picking up a bald eagle feather in a forest, and is found with a gun, is probably not going to be using that gun to rob a bank or to rape anybody. Not all felonies are equal."

Attorney General Mark Herring's office said initiatives such as Project Exile are only part of the solution to gun violence.

"Strong partnerships and prosecutions can help reduce gun violence in Virginia," Herring spokeswoman Emily Bolton told AMI Newswire. "[Attorney General Herring] strongly supports additional measures to reduce gun violence such as universal background checks and closing the gun show loophole; banning assault-style weapons; and reforming Virginia’s mental health system." 

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.