The moment that the 45th President nominated Jeff Sessions to be the People’s Lawyer, everyone on both sides of the gun debate began to shout out. The NRA posted television ads saying that “our nation’s chief law enforcement officer will work tirelessly to defend our rights while protecting us from violent criminals.” As to the former, Sessions was an outspoken champion of the 2005 PLCAA federal law immunizing gun makers from tort suits; regarding the latter, he is known to be ‘tough on crime,’ in particular violent crimes caused by a gun.
Sessions is one of a number of public officials who has been fervently impressed by a gun-control initiative in Richmond, VA known as Project Exile, which mandated lengthy federal prison time for anyone convicted of a gun crime in a city whose gun violence rates in the early 1990s ranked it as one of the most violent urban centers in the entire United States. In 1997, when the program first began, Richmond experienced 140 homicides, or an annual rate of 73! In 1998 homicides dropped by 36%, and continued to dwindle down over the next few years.
The good news is that by 2005, homicides in Richmond dropped to 84, then to 76 in 2006 and to 31 in 2008. From 1997 until 2010, more than 1,300 people were convicted of gun crimes and received prison sentences which totaled more than 8,000 years, for an average prison stay of more than 6 years per crime. No wonder Tough Guy Trump has praised Project Exile, but in all fairness the program was strongly supported by a Richmond City Councillor named Tim Kaine. The program was also supported by folks in the GVP community, including the Brady Campaign, then known as Handgun Control, Inc.
There were also some dissenting voices, most notably from various Gun-nut groups like saveourguns.com, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership and, of course, Larry Pratt. And lost in the rhetoric were complaints from federal judges who heard these cases and claimed they were an ‘overreach’ of federal authority, along with the charge that the program was inherently racist and led to over-incarceration of black defendants who always end up as the chief victims of any over-zealous response to crime.
Like most special law-enforcement initiatives that cost extra dough, Project Exile petered out in the mid-2000s after funding was cut by Congressional Republicans in 2003. But meanwhile, homicides in Richmond remained well below levels recorded before Project Exile went into effect in 1997-98. That is to say, until this past year. In 2016, the final murder number may end up at 60, the highest since 2007, and this would bring the annual murder rate back up to 30, which puts the former capital of the Confederacy back in the high end of gun-violence cities big time.
Nobody really knows for sure how come gun killings in Richmond have suddenly spiked last year, just as nobody really knows how come they dropped so significantly twenty years ago.
Back in 2002 several noted public policy and gun researchers, Steve Raphael and Jens Ludwig, published an assessment of Project Exile for Brookings, and decided that the “reduction in Richmond’s gun homicide rates surrounding the implementation of Project Exile was not unusual and that almost all of the observed decrease probably would have occurred even in the absence of the program.” Why did Raphael and Ludwig come to this conclusion? Because the same drop in violent crime occurred at roughly the same time in many cities which didn’t have any special anti-violence programs running at all.
Trying to figure out why America experienced a 50% decline in violent crime from the mid-90s until the mid-years of the following decade has become an academic cottage industry, without any real consensus as to the cause. Senator Sessions may believe that getting ‘tough’ is an effective to what has now become a new upwards spike in gun violence, but it won’t work until and unless we figure out why sometimes violent crime goes up and other times goes down. The solution hasn’t yet been found.