No one loves the Second Amendment more than Donald Trump, according to Donald Trump.
What’s more, he says, only he can save it from the likes of Hillary Clinton, whom, he recently claimed without evidence in a seeming incitement of violence, would scrap the right to keep and bear arms from the Constitution.
As with most of his political opinions, the Republican presidential nominee’s stance on gun rights has changed over the years. But Trump does have a plan to rescue the sacred yet apparently imperiled Second Amendment, one he lays out in his official position, published on his campaign website in September 2015.
Trump’s plan calls for a number of policies, such as an expansion of gun rights and the overhaul of a “broken” mental health care system, common refrains from Second Amendment advocates. It begins, however, with another directive—“Enforce The Laws On The Books”—and as best practice, Trump invokes, but never names, Senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine. Indeed, Trump’s plan to Make America Great for Gun Owners Again leans heavily on Project Exile, a 1997 program Kaine implemented as mayor of Richmond, Virginia, that was aimed at driving down crime rates by elevating gun offenses to the tougher federal court system.
“Several years ago there was a tremendous program in Richmond, Virginia called Project Exile,” Trump’s policy reads.
“It said that if a violent felon uses a gun to commit a crime, you will be prosecuted in federal court and go to prison for five years—no parole or early release. Obama’s former Attorney General, Eric Holder, called that a ‘cookie cutter’ program. That’s ridiculous. I call that program a success. Murders committed with guns in Richmond decreased by over 60% when Project Exile was in place—in the first two years of the program alone, 350 armed felons were taken off the street.”
It continues: “We need to bring back and expand programs like Project Exile and get gang members and drug dealers off the street. When we do, crime will go down and our cities and communities will be safer places to live.”
Project Exile—implemented when the Richmond had the nation’s third-highest murder rate per capita—was the result of a collaboration among federal prosecutors, law enforcement agents, local police, and state attorneys who agreed to prosecute qualifying gun crimes in federal court, where sentences were stiffer; bail, plea-bargains, and parole were unlikely; and, as the program’s name suggests, time was usually served out of state, far from family and friends.
Word spread quickly. If a convicted felon was found carrying a gun during the commission of a crime, local prosecutors would now toss the case to the feds, who would seek sentences twice as harsh. The policy was blasted to would-be criminals in a massive advertising campaign. Billboards and city buses emblazoned with “An illegal gun gets you 5 years in Federal Prison,” were funded in part by the NRA, which donated $125,000 to the marketing initiative.
“Our idea was, ‘Let’s do a lot of cases, we’ll incapacitate the worst gun carriers in Richmond and maybe will scare the rest of them through word of mouth into not carrying guns,’” then Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney James Comey said at the time.
“It’s just amazing how afraid these guys are of the federal system,” Kaine told The Chicago Tribune in 2000. “People who you think are tough and not afraid of anything, well, they’re afraid of federal prison. So it means they think twice about taking their gun out with them.”
The general consensus from politicians and law enforcement officials was that Project Exile worked. Cheerleaders for the program touted statistics showing an extreme reduction in crime: After one year, the homicide rate fell by over a third, and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Schiller told The New York Times in 1999 that Project Exile had led to the recovery of 475 illegal guns, and more than 400 indictments.
Project Exile was so popular that even the NRA and the the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, then known as Handgun Control, Inc., got behind the initiative, with NRA president Charlton Heston requesting $50 million at a House subcommittee hearing to expand Project Exile into more major cities. The bipartisan support for Project Exile was, as one committee member put it, “something that is unrivaled in the annals of history, perhaps only by Mr. Heston’s parting of the Red Sea.”
But not everyone was convinced.
Several federal judges labeled the practice as an overreach by the federal government into state matters, with one writing to Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist that Project Exile had turned his federal court into a “minor grade state police court.”
“More than 200 gun possession cases totally lacking in Federal significance have been processed through our court,” U.S. District Judge Richard Williams wrote. Moreover, the cost of trying cases in federal court, which fell on taxpayers, was three times that of those tried at the state level, he said.
There was also a human cost, critics said. Local defense attorneys argued the program was inherently racist, prosecuting black city criminals almost exclusively under federal guidelines while their white suburban counterparts were tried in state courts. More recently, Black Lives Matter advocates have criticized Project Exile as a continuation of the 1990s initiatives enacted by former president Bill Clinton that led to the mass incarceration of the nation’s back men and boys—policies from which Hillary Clinton has struggled to distance herself.
“Project Exile broke black families,” Nicole Lee, a civil rights lawyer in Washington D.C., told Reuters last month. “This is not a benign thing to be for. These measures were not used against white kids in the suburbs with guns, they were used against black kids in the cities.”
Perhaps the most damning critique of the initiative has come from academics who have questioned the reported success of what were, in effect, sentencing enhancements. An analysis from the University of Chicago found claims of Project Exile’s accomplishments to be “misguided” and attributed the reduction of gun murders to other factors (PDF).
Despite its critics, Kaine has repeatedly offered the program as an example of his tough stance on crime and used Project Exile’s overwhelming popularity to win elections.
Kaine sat on Richmond’s City Council when Project Exile was created in 1997. He was elected mayor in 1998.
During his ultimately successful 2001 bid to be Virginia’s lieutenant mayor, Kaine told The Washington Post that he had “[kept] our community safe from crime by implementing Project Exile.”
In 2003, then Lt. Governor Kaine criticized House Republicans who cut the program’s funding. “As a leader in implementing Project Exile, I was able to see the positive impact this valuable and effective crime-fighting program had in Richmond and then statewide, and finally as a national model,” Kaine wrote in a press release.
As a result, the program was slowly and unceremoniously phased out. Last week, an assistant Richmond commonwealth’s attorney, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “I think officially Project Exile, as Project Exile, doesn’t exist.”
“As Mayor of Richmond, Tim Kaine helped implement ‘Project Exile,’” his 2005 campaign website reads. Project Exile, it continues, “provide[s] a powerful illustration of the right way to combat the problem of gun violence: crack down on the criminals who use guns instead of restricting the rights of law-abiding gun owners.”
Trump’s campaign did not return a request for comment from The Daily Beast. But in numerous appearances and tweets since the announcement of Kaine as Clinton’s running mate, Trump has attacked the pick as evidence of her questionable judgement.
“Tim Kaine—nobody even knows who he is. No, he’s done a terrible job for Virginia,” Trump said to supporters in Roanoke, Virginia, at a July rally.
One assumes he’s not counting Kaine’s “tremendous program in Richmond.”