A gun-control plan that even the NRA can love

Murder rate in Richmond, Va., has fallen by more than half since 1994.

Carroll Goldsmith sits on her porch on a soft spring evening, talking on the phone and greeting neighbors who stroll by. Her three sons are asleep inside. She pauses in her conversation as a truck rumbles by.

"I could never do this before - sit outside at night and feel safe," she says.

When she and her husband moved to Richmond's Highland Park neighborhood nearly four years ago, gunfire was heard almost nightly. Children working as drug couriers carried firearms. Drug dealers arrested one day would be back on the streets the next afternoon. Virginia's capital city had, for the past decade, routinely ranked among the five American cities with the highest murder rate.

That has changed - dramatically - and residents like Mrs. Goldsmith give much credit to Project Exile, an aggressive, multipronged effort to crack down on criminals who use guns. The effect: The number of murders has been cut by Unusual alliance keeps guns off streets of Richmond more than half since 1994, guns on the street are far less common, and a fundamental change among Richmond's criminal element means the days of toting a gun in a waistband or a pocket have all but disappeared.

Since its inception three years ago, Project Exile has accomplished another seemingly impossible feat - winning the support of both the National Rifle Association and gun-control advocates. The NRA likes the project's emphasis on law enforcement (as opposed to creating new laws), and Virginians Against Handgun Violence sees it as a powerful tool that has involved the community so well that it's hard to find a corner of Richmond where Project Exile is not known.

The Clinton administration, for its part, cites Richmond as an example of how to combat gun violence, even as the president travels to Colorado today to push for more gun-control laws in the states. House Republicans, meanwhile, are scrambling to pass Project Exile block grants to replicate the program elsewhere. Already, it has been taken to Virginia's Tidewater region and Rochester, N.Y. New Orleans, Birmingham, Ala., Philadelphia, and Oakland, Calif., are modeling their own antigun initiatives after it.

TO MANY, the key to Project Exile's success has been its inclusive, "all hands on deck" approach to enforcing gun laws. It involves federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies, which work together to prosecute gun-toting criminals to the maximum extent of the law.

In Richmond, the word is out that an illegal gun means five years in federal prison, and enough criminals have been packed off to convince others to pack it in. Project Exile has stirred a "cultural change" on the city streets, says James Comey of the US attorney's office for the eastern district of Virginia.

The program started like this: Using existing federal laws, most cases in which a suspect used a gun were transferred to US courts, which have stiffer bond rules and sentencing guidelines. (Now that Virginia has passed broad enforcement laws, cases are split more evenly between state and US courts.) Since 1997, more than 380 sentences have been handed out, each averaging 56 months. At least 700 guns have been taken off the streets.

Besides the massive enforcement effort, Project Exile includes an aggressive public-information campaign. A coalition of business and community leaders, in conjunction with Richmond police, have launched an ad blitz to get out the message. One stark TV ad featured dead silence - in the hope that people in crack houses, where televisions are often blaring, would take notice when the noise cut to quiet.

Those involved in Project Exile - as well as the citizens who say they benefit - shake their heads over the nation's political tug-of-war over gun control. For Richmonders, Project Exile is not a partisan issue but simply a matter of common sense - and a big help in combating violent crime and neighborhood deterioration.

"Life was a war zone here," says Pam Smith, who lives in the Blackwell section of Richmond. "You could almost immediately see the difference after Project Exile started.... Now I'd say 80 percent of our neighborhood is safe, and people feel encouraged to say, 'We are not going to allow this sort of crime to continue in our home.' "

Morale among law-enforcement officials and other city workers, such as firefighters, improved as well, as they felt in less physical danger on the job. Even more encouraging for police was watching how gun charges became a serious issue, no longer just a revolving door back onto the street.

Mr. Comey acknowledges other factors are at play in Richmond's falling crime rate: community policing, education efforts in the schools, and business involvement. And though Richmond was resistant longer than most cities to crime trends, rates have dropped in most major metropolitan areas in recent years.

But Comey points to statistics that give weight to Project Exile's impact. The dropoff in murders here - from 139 in 1997 to 74 last year - has been staggering, with the biggest drop being in firearm deaths. The armed-robbery trend is similar - robberies involving knives and other nonfirearm weapons still occur, but robbery at gunpoint has dropped significantly.

Not that crime here has disappeared. Drugs are still a problem. "But there is a big difference between a crack dealer on your street versus an armed crack dealer," says Comey.

Project Exile is not without some doubters. Single mother Vicki Williams is still afraid to go out at night, and she has recently seen a young man with a gun in her drug-plagued neighborhood. Moreover, a federal panel of judges here has criticized Project Exile as a federal intrusion into state and local matters.

Mrs. Goldsmith, an administrative assistant at Virginia Commonwealth University, is involved in projects to revitalize abandoned buildings in her neighborhood. "Project Exile has made a great difference," she says. "It gave us a breather ... and a chance to deal with other issues."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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