The Social Contract with Owners of Dangerous Dogs

The news that a one-year-old girl recently had her nose bitten off by a pit bull attack in Ottawa has rekindled the always simmering debate over banning these dangerous animals. Barbara Kay -- a social conservative commentator in the Canadian media -- has written two good columns on the subject, calling for an enforced ban on dangerous dogs. The statistics Kay presents are alarming. Pit bulls are such an inherently dangerous breed that just brushing off calls for their banning is simply irresponsible.

As the years go by, the number of dog attacks continue to add up. In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide the following data: "About 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year. Almost one in five of those who are bitten, about 885,000, require medical attention for dog bite-related injuries; half of these are children. In 2012, more than 27,000 people underwent reconstructive surgery as a result of being bitten by dogs."

Where I must fundamentally disagree with Kay is on the following statement she made: "People have no inherent right to own a consumer product, live or not, that presents an elevated risk to fellow citizens." That would, of course, clearly violate Second Amendment constitutional protections in the United States. And Canada needs to move closer towards a constitutionally enshrined right to bear arms, rather than rather away from it.

Kay's statement is so broad that almost any "consumer product" could be banned, since almost anything can present "an elevated risk to fellow citizens." The problem with dangerous dogs is that they aren't just consumer products, they are living beings with their own will and desires, and they cannot be completely controlled. Inanimate consumer products can be completely controlled when in the hands of a responsible user.

Action should be taken against dangerous dogs. The following two policy options are available: (1) ban the ownership of any and all dangerous dogs, or (2) hold any and all owners of dogs responsible for any and all illegal acts that their pets commit to the extent equivalent as if the owner had committed the crime(s) themselves with intent and under aggravating circumstances.

Some will argue that all dogs can be dangerous, and that we cannot rationally restrict our bans to just one breed of dog. True that may be, in such a case we apparently need to ban the ownership of any and all dogs. Let the dog owners decide which option they would like to pursue. Ideally, we make such decisions based on an intellectually rigorous analysis of breed-related incident statistics. Using the statistics Kay has assembled in her articles, the primary culprit is pit bulls and a few other notable -- but much less problematic -- breeds.

Of course, we shouldn't restrict ourselves to just dogs. Owners should be fully responsible for the actions of all dangerous pets, so all dangerous pets should be banned (again, based on an analysis of species-related incident statistics). Those familiar with the law recognize that blunt instruments very often make bad law, and many readers can clearly appreciate the dangers that arise from the restriction of liberties for law-abiding citizens.

Bans are very blunt instruments, and generally bad law where an activity does not necessarily lead to a criminal act. And by no means is it unavoidable that owning a dangerous animal leads to that dangerous animal engaging in a criminal act. Thus, bans are not the preferred choice from a theoretical perspective, but they may be the only practical option available to deal with the problem.

Option (2) is preferable, as laws should always be constructed to focus on those engaged in criminal activity, capturing as few innocent parties as possible. Deterrence works, and by making penalties sufficiently harsh, illegal activities are minimized. What does this mean in practice? If a dog kills someone, the owner should be punished as though the owner had killed the other person with intent (the default is first-degree murder). No exceptions. If a dog attacks someone using less than lethal force, the owner should be considered to have engaged in the equivalent activity under aggravating circumstances. If a dog causes property damage of any form to another individual, the owner should be considered to have engaged in such activity with intent and under aggravating circumstances.

Dog owners will cry foul, as they do on almost all issues (a particularly whiny species they are). However, owning a dog (or other animal) is not a requirement to exist within civil society, with the exception of those who employ animals for a very narrowly restricted suite of purely legitimate disability reasons. Some will claim they have a fundamental right to own a dog if they so wish. Fine, but then such owners have a responsibility to be fully accountable for any and all actions of the animal they wish to own.

And, in return for someone's right to own a potentially dangerous animal, all other citizens should be granted the unrestricted right to own firearms in order to protect themselves against attacks from such animals. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. If you get to own a potentially dangerous weapon (e.g., a pit bull) and take it out in public, so do I. Except my choice of potentially dangerous weapon will be a handgun as defense against your potentially dangerous animal weapon.

Will the courts uphold option (2)? No chance, at least in Canada. The Canadian court system is far too conciliatory towards many illegal activities that there is zero likelihood it would uphold any form of legislation deeming the actions of an animal to be those of its owner with intent and aggravating circumstances. One suspects this judicial weakness is a common problem in the West. As a result, despite the theoretical preference for option (2), it is practically unworkable within our current and reasonably foreseeable future legal systems, requiring we pursue option (1). Namely, any and all dangerous dogs should be banned. We can start with pit bulls, and extend the bans if necessary.

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