Pit bulls and profiling: Obama opposes breed-specific legislation

Breed-specific legislation is a fear response, not a solution to a problem. It isn't so different from stop-and-frisk. Photo: His master's voice / Francis Barraud

WASHINGTON, August 24, 2013 – President Obama has announced his opposition to breed specific legislation. BSL bans, restricts or imposes conditions on the ownership of certain dog breeds, typically pit bulls and Rottweilers. Chow chows, Dobermans and German Shepherds have all been targeted as well.


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Obama made his comments in response to a petition against BSL on the White House website. The petition has collected over 30,000 signatures.

The use of BSL has been opposed by numerous organizations, including the American Humane Association, the American Kennel Club, and the American Bar Association. Legal challenges to BSL have had mixed success. The legal basis for challenges has included over-inclusiveness of the law, and its failure to provide due process to individual dog owners.

Pitbulls vicious? (Rob Swatski, Flickr)

Pitbulls vicious? (Rob Swatski, Flickr)

The practical argument is that it doesn’t work.


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BSL is a form of profiling. Done on the basis of race, gender or breed, profiling is too blunt a tool to fix the problems we want fixed.

Black men account for about 6 percent of the population, yet account for more than 52 percent of homicides. Lethal dog attacks are much more likely to come from pit bulls than from Chihuahuas. White men with degrees from prestigious universities are much more likely to be engaged in Wall Street fraud and to be charged with SEC violations than are undocumented immigrants from Mexico.

We conclude that we should be afraid of black men and pit bulls, and not let Harvard graduates work at Goldman Sachs.

Those are idiot conclusions. Every large breed except Basset Hounds has been implicated in fatal attacks on humans. Dogs from any large breed, possibly excepting Bassets, could be made into dangerous animals. Someone inclined to turn a golden retriever into an attack dog could probably do it. Even though certain breeds can, by virtue of size and strength, be made more dangerous than others, a .22 caliber Irish setter can still kill, if not as certainly as a .44 Magnum pit bull.

Profiling is an effective tool, both in law enforcement and in the prevention of dog bites, but only when it is based on criteria that have a direct bearing on the behavior that we want to prevent. The lethality of a gun or a box cutter is less important than the intent of the person wielding it. Rather than banning large breeds, it makes more sense to make leash laws mandatory for all breeds. People who have set up dogfights should be banned from owning dogs.

Profiled and banned. (Heather Bailey, Flickr)

Profiled and banned. (Heather Bailey, Flickr)

Not every young black man is a criminal. Most are not. Not everyone in Congress is corrupt. Most are not. Not every man is a rapist. Most are not.

It would be repulsive and unfair to treat everyone in a statistically riskier population as a risk. We recognize the unfairness of that when we aren’t acting on fear, and when we aren’t talking about pit bulls and black men.

Some airlines don’t let men sit next to unaccompanied minors. This is done out of fear for the safety of children, and for fear of liability. The solution is to profile all adult men as child molesters.

This policy has produced a great deal of criticism and anger; in the face of lawsuits and public backlash, British Air scrapped its policy, and Virgin Australia has its policy under review.

Women have been known to molest children. The rational approach to the threat of child molestation on airliners is to target behavior, not a sex. An adult who tries to change seats to be next to a minor is more likely to be a molester – or insane; the normal response of adults to children on an airplane is to try to sit as far from them as possible. The intelligent policy would be to disallow seat changing to be near minors and to seat minors near the cabin crew. Profiling passengers by sex is unnecessary and unfair.

Realizing that young white men can be as brutally vicious as young black men, and that viciousness is not unknown in women, it makes much more sense to profile behaviors, not races or sexes.

Obama is right to oppose BSL. Under the same logic, TSA and NYPD profiling by race and gender should be scrapped. Young men of any race panicking at the sight of the police or lurking in dark alleys should probably be stopped and frisked. A black kid in a hoodie walking down a public sidewalk should, absent a gun sticking out of his waistband, be left alone.

Lucy and Otis, pitbulls. (Mel Gupta, Flickr)

Lucy and Otis, pitbulls. (Mel Gupta, Flickr)

Fear drives policies like stop-and-frisk and BSL. It drives draconian drug laws and sentencing guidelines. It feeds on itself to ramp up the level of public fear, and it causes us to give up power to government in exchange for security. Racial profiling and BSL are symptoms of fear, not the cure. They should be scrapped.

 

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

 


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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