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In just three years, Project Exile has startled critics and supporters with a message so strong it makes criminals drop guns. Now everyone from the NRA to the Million Mom March to Congress wants a piece of the action.

Growing Exile

An illegal gun gets you five years in federal prison.

In Richmond neighborhoods like Gilpin Court, Randolph, Blackwell and Creighton Court, the message resonates. Long plagued by gun violence and crippled by the intimidation that reporting guns on the street means risking your life, its residents have started to feel like there's a solution to the mayhem. What's more, they've gotten involved with the program.

Project Exile, the aggressive strategy partnered by local, state and federal law enforcement and prosecution, and designed to halt violent crime, has swiftly put the fear of punishment back into the criminal equation. In just three years, it's helped cut Richmond's murder rate in half — and then half again. It's helped drop the city from fifth to 75th in murder rate per capita. Project Exile has helped residents of troubled neighborhoods and urban business owners feel they have the power to take back their streets — or at least report when they're besieged by guns.

Now, three years into the experiment, Project Exile is at a critical point where its future depends not on a report card of improved statistics, but rather on the ratings points of public approval. This year marks the end of the three-year initial pledge by contributors to its Citizen Support Foundation, the private arm that funds Project Exile's pervasive media placement.

At a time when the anniversary of the Columbine High School tragedy looms like a thundercloud and the Million Mom March is right around the corner, the perception of Project Exile may be more important than ever. And everyone from the U.S. Attorney General's office — often reported to be skeptical of Exile — to gun control advocates like Handgun Control, Inc., to the National Rifle Association, is cozying up to Exile. The NRA two weeks ago gave another $100,000 to the Exile foundation to continue its marketing campaign.

"The amazing thing about Exile is it's targeted mostly criminals, but it's had an amazing impact on the community as a whole," says Barbara Thornhill, part of The Martin Agency team that volunteers time to market Project Exile throughout the city. And although commercials and radio spots haven't aired in more than seven months, Thornhill says "it's still very much alive." Next month, the team launches a new slant on its three-year old campaign.

"It's a completely different creative concept," says Thornhill about the new wrapped city bus plugging Project Exile. The bus will feature the same slogan, but a greater emphasis now is placed on reporting illegal guns. The bus also will resemble a police squad car. "Project Exile makes sense and we believe in the Exile brand," says Thornhill.

After three years of in-your-face advertising that has included billboards, radio spots, TV commercials and the eye-catching city bus driving its slogan through the streets, most Richmonders get the message: Project Exile means business. Making use of stiffer, swifter penalties in federal courts, many gun cases skip the state system and are prosecuted federally where bond is unlikely, sentences average 56 months, and convicts are locked up as far away as Texas.

Word of Exile's success has garnered headlines across the country. A year ago, Richmond Police Chief Col. Jerry A. Oliver presented Project Exile to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Youth Violence. Also last year, the General Assembly approved legislation for Virginia Exile, an initiative to emulate what's been done locally throughout the state. And just last week, Gov. Jim Gilmore and Attorney General Mark Earley lauded the program before a congressional subcommittee and called for a $100 million grant — $1 million for Virginia — to expand the Project Exile model nationwide.

Virginia Exile promises to shepherd many felony gun offenses back through its own state courts, and whisk away federal money that might have been used locally.

Despite the spotlight, Project Exile is in a critical position. At the beginning of its fourth year, the once ubiquitous local advertising campaign is about to begin again. The original campaign grew from $40,000 in contributions — matched by donated time from various media and service agencies — to more than $100,000. But at the end of this year, local businesses, organizations and media outlets that have pledged support to the program's Project Exile Citizen Support Foundation end their three-year term of commitment. It's likely, given its success, many will continue. Still, it's a time when the foundation organizer, Stan Joynes, an attorney with the law firm LeClair Ryan, concedes it's "looking at funding sources and opportunities."

But that's nothing new. Two years ago, Joynes courted national organizations like Handgun Control, Inc. and the National Rifle Association. "We're not about gun control, we're about making Richmond a safer place to live," says Joynes. "At first we couldn't get any ringing endorsements. We dreamed, 'wouldn't it be wonderful if [Project Exile] could be the thing that brought these two sides of debate together?'" And while a request by Joynes to have both HCI's Sarah Brady and the NRA's Wayne LaPierre appear together was unequivocally turned down, Joynes' dream wasn't too far from reality. After one year spent observing its success, both groups now endorse Project Exile. "One supports us rhetorically and the other financially," says Joynes, referring to the NRA's recent second donation of $100,000.

"At first, I was concerned when I heard the NRA had made such a contribution," says Mike Sarahan, who's helping organize a local convoy to D.C. on May 14 for the Million Mom March in support of heightened gun-control initiatives. "But as long as the city and the police are not buying into the NRA agenda, my fears are allayed."

Joynes insists the NRA has no authority on how the money is spent or how the message is delivered and adds: "Last year they didn't get a public thank you."

The media swarm and official praise over Project Exile make it resemble the "Just Say No" to drugs campaign — only this time, it's over illegal guns. Meanwhile, Richmond has earned the cautionary bragging rights to a 50 percent drop in homicides compared to the same time last year. Those involved with Project Exile say it's still 11 dead bodies too many.

It's this statistic that proves to the U.S. Attorney's office, federal investigators, the Commonwealth's Attorney's office, and local and state police that Project Exile still has work to do.

"Project Exile is the flagship," explains Richmond's Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks, whose office agreed to waive its right to try potential Project Exile cases so that the federal initiative could work. Hicks credits much of the success of Exile to the effective advertising that's led to a more engaged community. "A person's perception becomes their reality. If a person thinks the federal way is more of a deterrent than the state, I don't care, as long as the end result is a safer street." And with the new law establishing Virginia Exile, which stiffens state penalties for many gun offenses, many criminals will be tried in the soon-to-be-tougher state courts.

It's hard to say just what that means for the local Commonwealth Attorney's office or Project Exile. "This is the big picture type of law enforcement we do now. Lord knows it's a work in progress." Still, Hicks cautions, "It's not a silver bullet and it won't work