A popular anti-gun crime program in Richmond that has been copied by other cities, states and the Bush administration is not responsible for the dramatic decrease in that city's gun-related homicides in the late 1990s, a new study says.

The more than 30 percent drop in killings often attributed to Project Exile, a six-year-old program that imposes automatic five-year sentences on felons caught carrying guns, probably would have occurred anyway as crime fell nationwide, according to an analysis by two scholars to be published in a book this month by the Brookings Institution.

"We have not found the magic cure for crime in the form of Project Exile," said Jens Ludwig, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University, who is a co-author of the study and co-editor of the book, "Evaluating Gun Policy: Effects on Crime and Violence."

Ludwig and Steven Raphael, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, found that homicide and other crimes decreased by just as much in cities similar to Richmond that did not have the program. They conclude that the cities saw such declines in the mid-1990s mostly because they had experienced larger-than-average increases in crime during the previous decade with the rise of the crack cocaine trade, which subsequently faded.

"The decline that you saw in Project Exile is almost exactly what you would have expected if they hadn't implemented Exile at all," Ludwig said. He said national policymakers should not view stiffer prison penalties as a cure-all for gun violence. "People claim that this modest program was responsible for a massive decline in crime. And basically what we're saying is that there is no free lunch. If you do a pretty modest program, you can't possibly expect it to perform miracles like the Project Exile proponents have claimed."

Defenders of the program say they aren't convinced of the report's veracity.

"The reality is: It was a public safety initiative that has proven very successful on many fronts that may not be academically linked," said Maj. Dave McCoy, the officer in charge of field services for the Richmond Police Department. "We believe -- and we always will -- that it played a major role [in cutting crime]. Exile is designed to reduce the carry rate of firearms, reducing the opportunity of a criminal to use a firearm in an illegal way, and we think we had many successes on that."

The program began in 1997 when Richmond had one of the highest homicide rates in the nation, with 139 murders in that year alone.

Federal prosecutors came up with a new strategy: target gun-toting criminals arrested by local police for routine crimes with seldom-used federal gun charges that carry strict mandatory sentences and stiffer bail rules. It was the kind of partnership that rarely happened because of turf battles and the differing missions of state, local and federal authorities.

Offenders were prosecuted for such crimes as the obliteration of serial numbers on weapons, the use of a gun while possessing a controlled substance and the possession of guns by fugitives. Those convicted were sent to out-of-state federal penitentiaries hundreds of miles away from their home communities -- the "exile" part of Project Exile.

Billboards and radio ads spread Exile's message, fueled with a six-figure advertising budget provided by local supporters and the National Rifle Association.

Gun seizures went up, more of those arrested on gun violations were convicted and the city's homicide rate declined in the first two years. Richmond had 94 murders in 1998 and 72 the following year. The annual figure has held at 72 since then, according to federal data.

The program drew plaudits from police, politicians, scholars and groups as varied as the NRA and Handgun Control Inc., now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. It spread to such cities as Philadelphia and San Francisco. Virginia adopted it statewide, and new Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) announced plans to bring the program to his state.

President Bush cited it as a model in creating his Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative, a two-year, $533 million effort to target gun crime through federal partnerships with state and local authorities

Monica Goodling, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said it would be inappropriate to draw comparisons between a limited study of a regional program and Bush's national effort.

"Exile's focus was on increased prison sentences, and the study was limited to the impact of federal prosecutions," she said. "Project Safe Neighborhoods is designed to build a partnership between state, local and federal government that together uses a wide range of tools and methods to make our communities more safe by reducing gun violence."

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said: "I would take the words of the men and women who are on the front lines of fighting crime in Richmond over the words of a couple stuffed shirts in some ivory tower."

However, Alfred Blumstein, a Carnegie-Mellon University professor and an expert on crime who has praised Project Exile, said the new report is "an important reaction to the widespread view that this was a major silver bullet."

"I was certainly more enthusiastic about it until the Ludwig study came out," he said. "This raises a degree of skepticism, but certainly doesn't show that Project Exile is inherently ineffectual. It's certainly possible that it has some effect, but the effects are subtle, as usual, and it's all the more important that we get a better handle on their magnitude."

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.