JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — One lawmaker is not giving up on his fight to end what he sees as discrimination against some dog breeds in the Show-Me State.
Rep. Ron Hicks wants municipalities to stop singling out a single breed of dog — in modern times, pit bulls — and he wants the state to stop holding dogs accountable for the actions of the owner.
On Wednesday night, a public hearing was held on a bill he believes will do that. HB 297, which Hicks presented to the House Special Committee on Urban Issues, would prohibit villages, towns, and cities from regulating dogs in a breed-specific manner.
“This legislation is simple. All I am asking is that we stop telling people who live in certain communities in this state that they cannot own a certain type of breed of dog,” said Hicks. “I am not telling them they can’t have leash laws, I am not telling them they can’t have fence laws, I’m not saying they can’t create their own laws if a dog was to bite somebody. I am simply asking that you allow me to own my dog.”
This legislation was originally introduced by Hicks in 2013, and similar measures have been filed every year since. The measure has yet to cross the finish line — in 2018 and 2017, the measure was voted out of a House committee but went no further.
Preventing municipalities from banning specific breeds has gotten pushback from those who say pit bulls are dangerous and that regulating them keeps the community safe.
One witness testified that her friend was mauled by a pit bull, has undergone more than three dozen reconstructive surgeries and has more to go.
“As Americans, Missourians have right to live in a safe community. They have a right to walk their dog down the street, work in their gardens, ride their bike, without fear of being attacked by a dog,” said Dana Strong with Safety Before Dangerous Dogs.
She argued that if pit bull owners can’t be responsible owners, the breed needs to be regulated. She believes pit bulls were specifically bred to be dog fighters and that it is in their nature to be aggressive.
But multiple advocates discounted her testimony, arguing that any dog, no matter what the breed, can be aggressive if they are trained to be. Supporters of the legislation said the dogs are conditioned to behave a certain way and are not inherently bad.
“I’ve broke up dog fights…none of these dogs were pit bulls,” said Gretchen Maune, who is blind and has used guide dogs for more than decade. “No matter the breed, they can be trained to be aggressive.”
Another witness testified that statistics do not support the claim that pit bull bans improve the safety of the community. Mandy Ryan, President of Missouri K9 Friends and former animal control officer, pointed out that statistics in Missouri actually disprove the effectiveness of pit bull bans.
“I have witnessed first hand that breed neutral dangerous dog laws are way more effective than any breed specific laws. Coming from someone who has been in the field and dealt with vicious dogs personally, breed specific laws actually have a tendency to compromise, rather than enhance, public safety,” said Ryan.
She pointed to Florissant, Missouri, in example. In 2005, one year before they implemented their pit bull ban, Florissant animal control responded to 38 dog bites and one cat bite. In 2015, roughly a decade into a pit bull ban, Florissant animal control responded 82 dog bites and nine cat bites. Florissant repealed their ban on pit bulls in March 2017. In 2018, they had 43 dog bites and zero cat bites.
Bob Baker, with the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, raised concerns that the wording of the legislation would prevent cities from regulating the breeding of specific dog breeds, like they do in Kansas City.
Kansas City saw an overflow of pit bulls in shelters, he said, so they passed a law requiring all pit bulls to be spayed or neutered. Baker noted the city has seen great success with the restriction and the current form of the bill would remove that regulation.
But one witness, who is involved with Kansas City shelters, said the same legislation was not working.
“Our mandatory spay and neuter has been nothing less than a failure and we have legislation pending to repeal it,” said Michelle Davis, co-founder of KC Pet Project, who operates the Kansas City Municipal Pound.
She testified that numbers of pit bulls in shelters have actually increased during the mandatory spay and neuter rule. Before, there were roughly 1,000 pitbulls in shelters and a decade later there were more than 1,300 pit bulls in shelters.
Davis noted that the reason they see an increase in pit bulls is not because of the nature of the breed but rather the ban on the breed in the surrounding areas.
“We need to start punishing the individual for the crime they do. If they train an animal to attack or be violent, then they should pay the price,” said Hicks.
Alisha Shurr was a reporter for The Missouri Times and The Missouri Times Magazine. She joined The Missouri Times in January 2018 after working as a copy editor for her hometown newspaper in Southern Oregon. Alisha is a graduate of Kansas State University.