How to Fight Breed Specific Legislation

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We've mentioned elsewhere why Breed Specific Legislation is a bad idea. It blames dogs instead of their owners and then compounds the problem by focusing on entire breeds instead of individual dogs. But knowing that BSL is a bad idea doesn't answer the question, "What's the best way to fight BSL?"

Approaches to Fighting Breed Specific Legislation

There are basically two lines of defense against BSL:

  1. Legal Challenges.
  2. The Battle for Hearts and Minds.

Legal Challenges to BSL

Several types of legal challenges have been brought against Breed Specific Legislation. Unfortunately most of them haven't been particularly successful. The challenges have been along the following lines:

  1. Due Process.
  2. Equal Protection.
  3. Vagueness.

Due Process

Higher court rulings have consistently held that there is no fundamental right to own a particular breed of dog (since the courts get to apply the law, whether they are right is irrelevant for practical purposes), so BSL merely has to be rationally related to a legitimate goal or purpose. Courts have repeatedly determined that BSL is rationally related to the government's goal of protecting public safety.

Equal Protection

Equal protection cases make the argument that that there is no legitimate reason to treat pit bulls and other affected breeds differently from other dogs. Unfortunately, while it is obvious that BSL is both under-inclusive (not covering all types of dangerous dogs, since all dogs can be potentially dangerous under some circumstances) and over-inclusive (covering a vast multitude of innocent, non-problematic dogs in order to protect against the possibility that some dogs of a particular breed will be dangerous) courts have repeatedly held that there is a rational basis for treating some breeds of dogs (most often pit bull types) differently than others.

Vagueness

Pit bull and other dog owners have had some success arguing that the particular law in question is unconstitutionally vague because it does not adequately define which dogs count as a "pit bull" or "pit bull type" (or other banned breed). It has also been successfully argued in some jurisdictions that it is too difficult for police, animal control, or individual owners to determine whether a particular dog falls under the scope of the local law.

While the first two arguments have sometimes been successful in the lower courts, they have always lost at the higher appellate levels. The third argument, however, that individual laws are unconstitutionally vague, sometimes wins.

If BSL is passed in your area, make sure any legal challenges you are involved with cover all of these grounds for the sake of thoroughness, but focus on the third area, as it presents you with the most realistic chance of winning.

The Battle for Hearts and Minds

While legal challenges constitute an effective stalling tactic and can occasionally win outright, long-term success in combatting BSL ultimately depends on educating the general public as to the wrong-headed and ineffective nature of BSL. After all, the whole BSL drive was kicked off in the 1980s by a series of articles on "killer pit bulls," starting with Newsweek and spreading first to Time and Sports Illustrated, then to newspapers, TV and radio stations across the country.

Now is the time for real information to end what misinformation began.

Getting the Facts Out

When using any of the following methods, make sure you are polite, presentable and well-spoken. In the court of public opinion, presentation often matters as much as substance.

  • Write letters. Contact your local government officials, and most of all, your local media. Letters to the editor of your local newspapers, if well-written and adhering to the paper's guidelines, have an excellent chance of being published.
  • Attend meetings. If the City Council or Chamber of Commerce or anyone else holds a meeting about a recent "pit bull attack" or plans to discuss instituting (or, as is increasingly the case, eliminating) BSL, make sure you're there, armed with a charming attitude and a dossier full of facts.
  • Talk to your friends. Educate everyone you know about BSL.
  • Call radio and TV stations. When your local radio or TV call-in shows focus on the topic, call them. Encourage like-minded others to do the same.

Let people know that American Pit Bull Terriers, as a breed, have a higher pass rate on temperament tests than Golden Retrievers and Beagles. If people say, "but I read about pit bulls killing someone!", point to the recent case of a Pomeranian killing an infant. There are bad apples--and that includes owners--in every breed. And make sure you mention all the respected organizations that oppose BSL.

Don't trivialize people's fears and safety concerns, but let them know that studies consistently show that BSL doesn't work (the UK actually saw a tremendous increase in dog bites after passing BSL).

Then point to alternatives that do work. Inform people that in places where laws focus on the dogs' owners and actual cases of aggression, irrespective of breed, there's an excellent success rate in reducing the number of dog bites. Holding owners accountable combined with better public education and increased enforcement of existing laws (specifically animal cruelty and leash laws) is more just, cheaper, and far more effective than BSL.

And remember, you are not alone. Contact any pit bull-friendly or anti-BSL national organization (see here for a list of helpful links) for informational and logistical help in mobilizing anti-BSL campaigns.

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