The Right to Bear… Dogs?

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Editor’s Note: Randy’s further thoughts and reflections in a follow-up piece on this subject can be found here. -LNP

I recently wrote about my rewarding encounter with Chloe, a pit-boxer mix who lives with my Braver Angels colleague and his wife in North Carolina. In that piece I mentioned in a parenthetical aside that “I acknowledge the debate over the potential dangers of owning pit bulls and pit mixes, and my own feelings are complex and evolving.”

So I was not surprised when one reader wrote in objecting to my “anthropomorphizing an animal,” a type of dog that has been “bred to fight, to the death, giving very little warning of their intent.” She pointed me towards dogsbite.org, a website that tracks dog bite statistics and advocates for breed-specific bans. It reinforces a fact of which I was already aware: pit bulls—or dogs identified as such—account for the overwhelming majority of dog bite deaths in the U.S. In the 16-year period ending in 2020, they contributed to two-thirds of those deaths, and 72% in 2020, according to the site.

Numbers like these make a compelling case for banning certain breeds of dog, and indeed hundreds of cities, towns and counties have done so across the country, along with the U.S. Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, according to the site. Several other countries also have similar laws on the books. 

I also have personal experience with the phenomenon; I carry a scar on my left leg from the tooth of a pit-Border Collie mix, which bit me on her way to charging my own—recently departed—dog, Ferry, a shepherd mix. The owners said she had run out of the house and was sitting in front when bad timing brought Ferry and me around the corner at just the wrong moment. 

Both experience and stats were on my mind when I recently began giving more thought to these laws. The debate over pit bulls has been at times intense, with advocates of bans squaring off against owners who say their beloved pets are simply misunderstood, and that the carelessness of a small number of irresponsible—or even malicious—owners shouldn’t deprive many families of their highly affectionate pit bull companions. 

In some ways the debate has come to resemble the discussion of guns in this country. Pit bull defenders emphasize the role of owners, arguing that the dogs themselves are not the problem. They advocate for restricting “reckless owners” from keeping dogs, similar to the “red flag laws” that keep guns from people with mental health or domestic violence issues. And they cite the difficulty in identifying specific dog breeds for enforcement, just as many gun advocates have lamented the simplistic ways in which they believe anti-gun advocates have railed against the convoluted category of “assault weapons.” 

And indeed, my feelings about the two issues are fairly similar. Given the numbers, I feel that both pit bulls and guns should be subject to fairly aggressive restrictions. But my certainty over these issues is weakened by my understanding of the good-faith concerns and beliefs of those on the other side. And another experience I had with dogs is illustrative, I think, for both breed restrictions and gun regulations.

A few years ago I took a trip up to the Bay Area to visit my brother, who was living in Oakland at the time. He and his then-girlfriend—since married—didn’t have room for me and Ferry, so I found an Airbnb that accepted dogs. I kept up my habit of running with Ferry each day, and as we strode around the modest Oakland neighborhood, it seemed like pretty much every house had a pit bull chained inside its fenced yard, barking furiously as we passed. 

Reflecting back on that experience, I have to recognize how different my cloistered Irvine neighborhood is. I could confidently leave my door unlocked as I took Ferry for walks around the winding sidewalk paths that cut through my grassy park of a development. Were I to live in that Oakland house, I would feel much less secure, and I can imagine that the owners there believe that their dogs make it much less likely their homes will be targeted for break-ins. I can also imagine a thief bypassing a yard with a pit bull, and then ignoring a friendly Labrador on his way through its owner’s front door. 

Gun owners cite similar motivations of self-protection. According to Pew, over 60 percent of them name personal safety as their main reason to have a gun. And gun ownership has spiked over the past few years, following a similar trend in murder rates and violence within cities

I still feel strongly that we should be doing as much as possible to rein in the exploding number of guns in our country, just as I think it’s an utter tragedy the number of pit bulls languishing in our nation’s shelters, many of whom will be euthanized. (Ferry—née Black Jack—was surrounded by dozens of barking pits when I picked him up from a rescue in Central California.) At the very least I think we should ban their breeding and require spaying and neutering. 

But I must think twice about my beliefs about who should have a right to own either a gun or a pit bull, since I don’t know what it’s like to live in a place where I’ve felt my safety depends on it.

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