For Decades, Denver Outlawed Pit Bulls. Voters Just Overturned the Ban.

Proponents of the measure argued that Denver residents already own pit bulls, but the mayor pointed out that few pets are registered, so the new system might be ineffective.

Proponents of the measure argued that Denver residents already own pit bulls, but the mayor pointed out that few pets are registered, so the new system might be ineffective. Shutterstock

 

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The city passed a pit-bull ban in 1989 after multiple people reported being attacked by the breed, although research has shown that such policies have little effect on public safety.

Voters in Denver on Tuesday approved a proposal to repeal the city’s pit bull ban, a measure originally passed by the city council in February only to be vetoed days later by Mayor Michael Hancock.

Hancock said on Wednesday he would not interfere with the results of the ballot initiative, which voters approved by a 2-to-1 margin.

“I always said if … we took it to the vote of the people, we would honor the vote of the people,” he told CBS Denver.

Denver enacted its ban on pit bulls in 1989 after 20 people reported being attacked by the breed over a period of five years, including a 3-year-old who was killed during an attack in 1986. City leaders and animal advocates have since tried to repeal the ban several times, including a failed attempt to put the issue on Denver’s municipal ballot in 2016. 

Councilman Chris Herndon raised the issue again this year, proposing to replace the ban with a special license for pit bulls. Owners would be required to register their dogs—paying a higher fee than is required for other breeds—and provide proof that the animal is spayed or neutered, microchipped and has been vaccinated for rabies. If the dog has no issues for three years, the owner can apply for a regular dog license. Residents would also be limited to two pit bulls per household.

Herndon said the idea was a good compromise that would allow Denver residents who already own pit bulls to place them on a formal registry that would give the city an easy way to investigate if an attack or bite occurred. 

“Dogs bite, but there’s no such thing as a bad breed,” he said in a television interview. “This is a very good compromise. Let’s take time to demonstrate that they’re no different than any other animal.”

Studies have shown that pit-bull bans, otherwise known as breed-specific legislation, are expensive to enforce—Denver’s has cost about $5.8 million—but have little effect on preventing dog attacks or bites. That’s partially because pit bulls are not inherently more dangerous than other breeds of dog, according to a review of controlled studies by the American Veterinary Medical Association. 

A host of other organizations, including the American Kennel Club, the American Bar Association and the Humane Society of the United States, have arrived at similar conclusions. All oppose breed-specific legislation, and more than 100 cities have repealed their bans in recent years, though the policies are still common throughout the United States.

The city council in February voted 7-4 to approve Herndon’s proposal, but Hancock vetoed it days later, saying in a letter that “repealing the ban “would pose an increased risk to public safety.”

“Less than 20% of all pets in Denver are currently licensed, which raises significant questions about the effectiveness of this proposed new system,” he wrote. “The reality is that irresponsible pet owners continue to be a problem, and it is the irresponsible pet owners and their dogs I must consider in evaluating the overall impact of this ordinance.”

The city council did not have enough votes to override the veto but approved a measure to place it on the ballot.

As passed, the ordinance allows for penalties for residents who do not comply, beginning with a warning and a “mandatory request” to bring the unlicensed dogs in for assessment. Officials with Denver Animal Protection will “perform a follow-up verification” within 10 days of the warning; after that, the owners may be summoned to court, issued a fine, or be forced to give up their dogs entirely.

The policy goes into effect Jan. 1.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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