Project Exile

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This article is about a United States federal program. For the video game that was initially called Project Exile, see Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled.

Project Exile was a federal program started in Richmond, Virginia in 1997. Project Exile shifted the prosecution of illegal technical gun possession offenses to federal court, where they carried a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison under the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, rather than in state court. Note that federal law (18 U.S.C. sec. 922 & 924) provides for a penalty of ten years in federal prison for being a "prohibited person" i.e. a convicted felon in possession of a firearm, as well as for falsifying information in order to obtain one, or furnishing a gun to a convicted felon.

The program has since been copied by several other cities, sometimes under other names. In Atlanta, for example, the program was known as FACE 5 (Firearms in Atlanta Can Equal 5 years in federal prison).

Origin and implementation[edit]

The program was designed to address the gang violence which had plagued Richmond. At the time of its inception, the level of murders and shootings had regularly increased each year, with Richmond's murder-per-capita rates being one of the highest five for the country. In 1997, 140 people were murdered, 122 of them with firearms.[1] There was strong community support for federal intervention, the African American community was being devastated by the violence (80% of all the homicide victims in Richmond were African-American) and half of the victims had no prior criminal record, the result of the poor marksmanship of drug dealers often wildly shooting at targets of opportunity leading to the death of innocent bystanders.[1] The belief was that the threat of a stiff federal sentence with no parole would deter criminals from carrying guns and relegating murder to planned rather than spontaneous events.

Project Exile was named for the idea that if the police catch a criminal in Richmond with a gun in a crime, the criminal has forfeited his right to remain in this community, the criminal will face immediate federal prosecution and stiff mandatory federal prison sentences (often five years), and will be "exiled" to federal prison for five years.[1]

In 1997, the program was implemented in conjunction with an extensive public outreach and media campaign to educate citizens about lengthy Federal prison sentences for gun crimes and to maximize deterrence. The message An Illegal Gun Gets You Five Years in Federal Prison was placed on 15 billboards, a fully painted city bus carried the message changing routes every day, TV commercials, Metro Richmond traffic reports, over a million supermarket bags were also used to advertise Project Exile.[1]

In the 2001, after the launch of a similar state program named Virginia Exile, Project Exile evolved from a federal only program to a larger cooperative effort with state and local authorities meeting bimonthly to review ongoing arrests to determine in which venue to bring the case so as to ensure the maximum possible penalty.[2] The marketing and community outreach efforts have been toned down.[2]



The National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Brady Campaign were both early and vocal supporters of Project Exile,[2] The NRA lobbied the U.S. Congress to help secure $2.3 million for emulation of Exile in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Camden County, New Jersey, where similar firearms-related violence has plagued the communities. The NRA has remained a strong supporter of the program as its focus is on severely punishing all gun crimes especially illegal possession rather than by making gun purchases more difficult.[2] NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre stated "By prosecuting them they prevent the drug dealer, the gang member and the felon from committing the next crime....Leave the good people alone and lock up the bad people and dramatically cut crime."[2]


Opposing Project Exile were libertarians, anti-prison advocates, black activists, and a coalition of pro-gun rights groups.[3]

A "Project Exile Condemnation Petition" was launched by Brian Puckett of,[4] Larry Pratt of Gun Owners of America,[5][4] Angel Shamaya of,[4] and former NRA director Russ Howard.[4] Other prominent opponents who were members of this anti-Exile coalition included Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership,[4] the Law Enforcement Alliance of America,[4] Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne,[4] and science fiction writer L. Neil Smith.[4]

From the left, Project Exile was condemned, as racist, by Families Against Mandatory Minimums,[6] and opposed by several members of the Congressional Black Caucus on the grounds that it would have a disproportionate effect on the black community since it targeted inner city communities where the crime rates were highest (such as in Richmond and Atlanta). In testifying against the reliance on federal mandatory minimum sentences in general, U.S. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) noted that Richmond had a smaller drop in crime during the period Exile was in effect than did Norfolk, which did not have Exile.[7]


Project Exile was widely praised after its first year's results were released.[8][9][10]

Within the first year (1997-1998) Project Exile resulted in:[1]

  • 372 persons indicted for Federal gun violations.
  • 440 illegally possessed guns seized.
  • 300 persons arrested or held in State custody.
  • 222 arrestees (more than 74 percent) held without bond.
  • 247 persons convicted.
  • 196 persons sentenced to an average of 55 months of imprisonment.

During the first year of Project Exile (1998), homicides in Richmond declined 33%, for the lowest number since 1987, and armed robberies declined 30%. In 1999, homicides declined another 21%.[11] By 2007, homicides in Richmond were down to 57 compared to 122 in the year before Project Exile.[2]

Research analysts offered different opinions as to the program's success in reducing gun crime. Authors of a 2003 analysis of the program argued that the decline in gun homicide was part of a general regression to the mean across U.S. cities with high homicide rates.[12] Authors of a 2005 study disagreed, concluding that Richmond's gun homicide rate fell more rapidly than the rates in other large U.S. cities with other influences controlled.[13]


Project Exile, which was confined to Richmond and surrounding areas, has since been supplanted by Virginia Exile, the Commonwealth's statewide program which carries bail restrictions and imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in a Virginia prison for those who:

  • have a prior conviction for a violent felony and are convicted of possessing a firearm;
  • are convicted of possessing a firearm on school property with the intent to use it, or displaying it in a threatening manner;
  • are convicted of possessing a firearm and Schedule I or II drugs such as cocaine or heroin, or convicted of possessing more than a pound of marijuana with the intent to sell.


  1. ^ a b c d e United States House of Representatives House Judiciary Committee: "PROJECT EXILE AND VIRGINIA EXILE - SOLUTIONS FOR THE GUN PROBLEM WHICH WORK" 2000
  2. ^ a b c d e f Wall Street Journal: "Going After Crimes -- and Guns, Richmond, Va., Cleans Up Its Streets By Severely Punishing Any Firearms Offense" By GARY FIELDS August 5, 2008
  3. ^ The Virginian-Pilot: "Project Exile flexes federal muscle at gun crime" By Joanne Kimberlin March 4, 2008
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Keep And Bear Arms Website: "We Condemn 'Project Exile' - A Coalition of American Leaders in the Firearms Movement" retrieved April 21, 2013
  5. ^ Gun Owners Of America: "Liberal Think Tank Finds That Project Exile Doesn't Work" by Larry Pratt September 8, 2008
  6. ^ PDF
  7. ^ Congressional Record April 11, 2000
  8. ^ San Francisco Gate: "Gun Enforcement Holds Down Richmond's Homicide Rate / `Project Exile' helping reverse violent trend" by Michael Janofsky February 17, 1999
  9. ^ Baltimore Sun: "Changing a culture of gun violence - No compromise: Unbending enforcement makes criminals less likely to carry guns and kill. Getting Away With Murder" February 08, 2000
  10. ^ The Free Lance-Star: "Stopping Gun Crime: Project Exile is the Best Program Yet Devised to Stop the Carnage on our Streets" March 30, 2000
  11. ^ United States House of Representatives House Judiciary Committee: "PROJECT EXILE AND VIRGINIA EXILE - SOLUTIONS FOR THE GUN PROBLEM WHICH WORK" 2000
  12. ^ Prison Sentence Enhancements: The Case of Project Exile, in Evaluating Gun Policy by Jens Ludwig and Steven Raphael 251 (2003)
  13. ^ Did Ceasefire, Compstat, and Exile Reduce Homicide? by Richard Rosenfeld 4 Crimonology & Pub. Pol'y 419 (2005)

Further reading[edit]

  • Daniel C. Richman, "Project Exile" and the Allocation of Federal Law Enforcement Authority, 43 Ariz. L. Rev. 369 (2001).

External links[edit]