AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
While major metropolitan areas like New York City and Los Angeles have consumed most of the media attention when it comes to the country’s spiraling violent crime problem, they aren’t the only areas dealing with a crime spike. Smaller cities such as Richmond, Virginia have also seen rising numbers of homicides and violent crimes – leading some residents to call on Democrat leaders at the city and federal level to revisit a two-decade old program that helped quell a prior wave of violence.
Last Thursday, Richmond Police responded to multiple shootings in one night, an occurrence that is fast becoming routine in Virginia’s capital city. Over Labor Day weekend, three people were shot at a baby shower in the southern part of the city in a public park, sending dozens of panicked residents running for cover. 2021 was the deadliest year for Richmond in decades, and 2022 is on pace to surpass it.
City leaders as well as the governor’s office have acknowledged that something must be done to stop the violence. Following last Thursday’s shootings, Virginia Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears was on the scene to observe for herself how bad the problem has gotten. Ironically, she was just a few blocks away from the third shooting at an event with city leaders to discuss gun violence. “We heard somebody had gotten shot somewhere else, and then we heard about two more, and then we heard about two more and we said, ‘Let’s go,’” Sears said. “I said, ‘I want to go see for myself,’ and we came without any police protection or anything, but if the people I represent aren’t safe then why should I be safe, so that’s why I’m here.”
In response to the problem, city leaders have attempted to implement so-called “gun buyback programs” – a common liberal solution to gun-related violence. During the first such gun buyback days last month, Richmond residents could collect up to $250 in gift cards for every weapon they handed over to police. In total, 476 firearms were recovered, of which over 300 were still operable.
City officials touted the event as a success, yet experts disagreed. Historically, gun buyback programs have not led to meaningful reductions in crime, according to Dr. Will Pelfrey, an expert in law enforcement and public safety. “The people who are going to bring those guns [to a buyback event] … are unlikely to be the people who are considering using those guns in a violent crime,” Dr. Pelfrey told VPM News. “Criminals are unlikely to show [up] to an event where there are, probably, police.”
This is a routine issue with progressive efforts to reduce armed violence. Most liberal policies are aimed at reducing firearm possession among law-abiding citizens, not criminals or potential offenders.
Some law enforcement officials in Virginia are instead pushing for the reinstatement of a joint state and federal program to address gun violence that was far more effective.
In 1997, Richmond was again facing another wave of violent crime – in this instance due largely to gang violence. Poor and minority neighborhoods were disproportionately affected, and police resources were strained to their limits.
In response, the federal government implemented what would become known as “Project Exile.” Instead of today’s soft-on-crime policies that often see offenders back out on streets in a matter of hours, anyone found carrying an illegal firearm would be charged in federal court and receive a five-year mandatory minimum sentence on top of any other criminal charges. In addition to these aggressive charges, the program also ran a significant public awareness campaign that made the policy explicitly clear. The program had strong support from the general public, the National Rifle Association, and a bipartisan group of legislators in Congress.
One year after being implemented, almost 500 illegally possessed guns were off the streets. Additionally, the program put hundreds of criminals behind bars for, at minimum, five years. As a result, homicides and armed robberies decreased by more than 30 percent. A decade after being implemented, Richmond’s homicide rate had dropped by over 50 percent.
Critics of the program argued that the program was “racist” because it resulted in the incarceration of a disproportionate number of Black offenders. But as supporters of the program – many of them also Black – pointed out, most of the victims of gun violence in the city were Black as well.
Over time, as the homicide rate declined, the program was replaced by Virginia Exile, with more lenient sentencing guidelines. Today, as homicide rates spike once again, retired Richmond Police Detective Joseph Fultz is calling for returning to the Project Exile strategy.
In a recent interview, Fultz declared, “If we went to solving problems instead of worrying about politics so much, we’d have a better situation going on and get a lot more issues solved…We have to put politics aside…The initial problem is violent crime, illegal guns, criminals using those guns, and who is it affecting? People in those communities.”
Shortly before taking office, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares announced he was open to reinstating the program. Unsurprisingly, Virginia Democrats have opposed the idea. But as violence continues to spread unchecked on the streets of Richmond – and dozens of other cities like it throughout the country – communities are in desperate need of an effective response from their elected leaders.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.