The History of the Pit Bull Ban Repeal Effort Since Mid-January
Mayor Michael Hancock's press conference after he vetoed the pit bull ban repeal legislation.
UPDATE: On February 24, the attempt to overturn Mayor Michael Hancock's veto of the pit bull ban repeal failed in an 8 to 5 vote. Nine votes were needed to overcome the veto. The repeal's sponsor, Councilman Chris Herndon, will now try to place the initiative on the November ballot.
Denver Mayor Vetoes Repeal
Denver, CO - On February 14, Mayor Michael Hancock vetoed a bill that would have rescinded the city's 30-year old pit bull ban. The rabid repeal effort began in January driven by Denver City Councilman Chris Herndon. Council Bill 20-0071 proposed allowing pit bulls if an owner obtained a "breed-restricted license," showed proof the dog was microchipped, had a current rabies vaccination (as is already required under Denver statute), and limited households to two pit bulls.
The meager ordinance, which requires little more than what all Denver dog owners are already required to do, can be read in full here. Herndon championed his repeal legislation as a "compromise." But a compromise involves at least two sides, in this case, future victims of violent pit bull maulings and the owners of pit bulls. Herndon's legislation offered "zero" protections for future pit bull victims. Mayor Hancock agreed the legislation, in its current form, is not adequate.
"The difficulty in the numbers of the fatal attacks by pit bulls was really one of the things that stuck with me as I kept going back and forth on whether or not I would sign this legislation." - Mayor Hancock press conference
Mayor Hancock is in his 3rd and final term as the mayor of Denver. Herndon's pit bull ban repeal is the first time he has ever vetoed any legislation during his tenure. "I did not take it lightly," Hancock said during the February 14 press conference. "I hope that council takes a re-look at this" and will reconsider their position in regards to this ordinance, he said. There are broader issues that must be dealt with in this city, such as a low licensure rate and dogs running at large, Hancock said.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, Mayor Hancock stated, "Over the past several days, I have heard from thousands of residents passionately expressing their opinions on both sides of this issue." After deep reflection, "I find that I cannot, in good conscience, support this legislation and will exercise my authority as Mayor to veto it." We cannot "diminish the very real, very traumatic experiences of those who have reached out to me to share their stories," he stated.
We cannot diminish the very real, very traumatic experiences of those who have reached out to me to share their stories. While I appreciate the effort that Councilman Herndon has put in to crafting this ordinance and its guardrails, I do not believe this ordinance fully addresses the very real risk to severe injury that can result from attacks from these particular dog breeds, especially should they happen to a child.
At the end of the day, I must ask whether passage of this ordinance would make our homes and neighborhoods safer or pose an increased risk to public safety? I have concluded that it would pose an increased risk. I encourage members of City Council to reconsider their approach to this ordinance, which has been in the municipal code for over three decades. If we were to make this change now, and harm comes to someone as a result, then we have done a disservice to the people of this great city. - Mayor Hancock press conference
How to Thank the Mayor
We strongly urge our readers to thank Mayor Hancock for his brave and honest decision to veto this "rushed" repeal legislation. You can leave a a nice comment on his Facebook page, the post containing his official statement and you can also email email@example.com. If you are a Twitter fan, send him a thank you Tweet or comment on the Tweet containing his official statement. Also, handwritten notes never go out of "vogue." Send your letter snail mail here:
Mayor Michael Hancock
City & County of Denver
1437 Bannock St #350
Denver, CO 80202
How the Repeal Emerged
On January 22, the bill sailed out of the Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee in a unanimous 7-0 vote (see full video). That same day, the grandmother of Daxton Borchardt, who was brutally killed by two pit bulls in 2013, spoke against the repeal. "If 186 Americans have been killed in the last seven years by pit bulls, what does that say?" Sharon Sucharski asked CBS Denver. She added, "If the ban is working to keep the number of attacks down, why change it?"
The bill was scheduled before the full council on February 3. In the meanwhile, letters opposing and supporting the bill began pouring into the inboxes of city council members. However, when a bill moves this quickly, it's typically a "done deal." The legislation has the required votes to prevail. A "one hour courtesy" public hearing was held on February 10, where a handful of people opposed the repeal legislation, including Paul Vranas (1:25:30) and Reginald Norman (1:31:00).
Finally, the third problem that I have with this bill is its impact on marginalized citizens. I was surprised to hear that a lot of pit bull complaints in Denver have been coming from some of our poorest citizens … What impact is this bill going to have on these citizens of ours? … When we are crafting a law that disproportionately impacts a marginalized group of people, we should be going into these neighborhoods and having these conversations, especially when it is a matter of public safety. Without these answers, I don’t believe we have enough information on this topic to move forward.
In closing, the issue of reintroducing pit bulls to Denver is a complex, multi-dimensional, high-stakes issue. This bill over simplifies the process of this reintroduction without addressing public safety outcomes, without data to support it or engagement with the most marginalized Denverites on a matter of life and death. - Paul Vranas
Interestingly, Tom Moe also spoke (3:24:33), who drafted the original ordinance in 1989. A council member asked him if he heard any different arguments tonight than what came up in this same chamber 30-years ago when city council adopted the ordinance. He answered, "Not really." Though he noted the growing trend of "pit bull designer" breeds (pit bulls on steroids) and the American bully. Mole was also asked if the city could be sued if it reverses its pit bull ban.
That's a strong possibility … The first time it got tested, there were a bunch of organizations, including the American pit bull breeders and also the UKC or AKC, at least one of them was involved. There were about four different organizations, so a lot of evidence was presented on both sides, hours and hours. With some modifications to the ordinance, the judge decided it was constitutional. It was appealed again, all the way up to the state supreme court. The state supreme court found it constitutional. In my testimony, I mentioned all of the characteristics of pit bulls. The supreme court agreed. That it made [pit bulls] more dangerous…
Then it got challenged again when the state of Colorado said it was their purview [after passing a state preemption law], not the localities to decide whether there could be breed-specific legislation. So, once again, Kory Nelson, who is still in the city attorney's office, handled that. And once again, the court upheld the ordinance.
One of the dangers that I see here is that all this law indicates that pit bulls are a dangerous dog. That [pit bulls] have a higher propensity to inflict a severe bites. Not number of bites, but severity of bites. This has been supported in a lot of other places. So, given that, if we pass this ordinance and somebody gets attacked, they could sue the city. And, based on the law, if the city is viewed as reckless, then the recklessness pierces the governmental immunity that protects the city from being sued, and allows somebody who is the victim of [a pit bull attack] to sue the city. And, get taxpayer dollars as a result of that suit. - Tom Moe
A noteworthy legal argument arose after this as well (3:36:00). When Denver banned pit bulls they grandfathered in existing pit bulls under strict requirements, practically none of which exist in the proposed repeal, including: mandatory insurance, muzzling when off property, mandatory spay and neutering1 and secure enclosure requirements. Thus, Herndon's repeal ordinance might place the city in the liability equation for failing to include similar safety restrictions in the repeal.
The fundamental problem of Herndon's proposal is that it offers no protections for victims. Without mandatory insurance, few or no victims of violent pit bull attacks will receive compensation for their medical bills. Without mandatory muzzling when off property, there is little to prevent the bite. Legislative counsel said the city would be immune from any future lawsuits -- don't bank on that. Further, the repeal ordinance opens up a new avenue for pit bull organizations to file a lawsuit.
The legislation states, "WHEREAS, since Denver adopted its ban, there has been a review of controlled studies by the American Veterinary Medical Association ("AVMA") that document that pit bulls are not disproportionately dangerous compared with other dogs." Thus, under this ordinance, Denver would no longer have a legal "rational basis" for regulating pit bulls. A breed-specific pit bull ordinance is only viable if a city can prove that pit bulls pose a unique danger to the public.
The Vote and the Petition
After the courtesy hearing on February 10, city council members passed the bill in a 7-4 vote. On this same day, 5-year old Sterling Vermeer of Oro Grande, California was brutally killed by a family pit bull of 12-years after the dog latched onto his neck. On this same day, 25-year old Devin White died after his own pit bull attacked him and three other family members in Plainfield, Illinois. All four individuals were transported to local hospitals after this family pit bull "rampage attack."
By February 11, the conversation began to change, noting that Mayor Hancock could veto the repeal ordinance. The arguments to veto were solid. Erring on the side of safety is always best. As Vranas stated during the hearing, "There is nothing urgent about this topic requiring it to pass tonight." Also, less than 20% of pets in Denver are licensed. Thus, the vast majority of dog owners in Denver are not in compliance with the current law. Shouldn't the city tackle that problem first?
On February 12, Vranas started an online petition, urging Mayor Hancock not to sign the ordinance into the city’s code. The petition notes the two recent fatal pit bull maulings in California and Illinois. "We believe that a similar deadly attack will happen in Denver as a direct result of the passage of this law," states the petition. Vranas had asked council members to state in writing, to "unconditionally swear to the people of Denver" that Herndon's bill will make Denver a "safer city."
We hereby personally and unconditionally swear to the people of Denver that:
1) Bill 20-071 will create for a safer city than currently exists in Denver related to pit bull attacks.
2) At a minimum, the results from the passage of this bill will meet the safety levels previously attained prior to the passage of this bill, of zero deaths to Denver residents as a result of a pit bull attack.
None of the seven city council members who voted for the proposed repeal signed the document.
On February 13, Vranas and citizens from Denver's Montbello community delivered the petition to Mayor Hancock. “We are very very threatened by the possibility of this ban being lifted. Just yesterday we witnessed two pit bulls in our community of Montbello, just strolling and roaming freely,” said Pam Jiner. She added, "We have hundreds of pit bulls in Montbello." Residents in this Denver community fear that lifting the ban will result in even more irresponsible pit bull owners.
On Valentine's Day, Mayor Hancock vetoed the legislation. During his 15-minute press conference, he explained why he made this decision. He also stated during it, "I am reading letters and information from pediatricians and emergency room physicians, they were very compelling to me." A veto can be overridden by a super majority of city council members. If that effort fails, Councilman Herndon says he will try to place his repeal measure on the city's November ballot.
American Veterinary Medical Association
In October 2016, we released a special report about the back story of the Montreal pit bull ban. The report explained how The Association of Veterinary Doctors of Quebec omitted key parts of medical studies in their report to the government committee, leaving some of these studies "unrecognizable." We also explained the five levels of the American Pit Bull Lobby. Notably, Level 3: Publication, is the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA).
This false passage in the pit bull ban repeal, "WHEREAS, since Denver adopted its ban, there has been a review of controlled studies by the American Veterinary Medical Association ("AVMA") that document that pit bulls are not disproportionately dangerous compared with other dogs," is based upon an outdated, cherry-picked policy paper by the AVMA that is designed to obscure the dangerous breed issue, making it difficult for the public, media and lawmakers to understand.
This is the same paper (Literature Review on the Welfare Implications of The Role of Breed in Dog Bite Risk and Prevention, May 15, 2014) that Herndon cites as "scientific" proof that pit bulls are not disproportionately dangerous compared with other dogs. The AVMA is not a "disinterested" party. For decades they have opposed all breed-specific laws. Animal behaviorist Alexandra Semyonova even wrote a sobering analysis of this document showing just how unscientific it is.
The principle use of this AVMA paper is to frustrate any city's effort to pass or maintain breed-specific legislation, just as Herndon's pit bull ban repeal shows. Semyonova states in her analysis, "Of the 65 cited 'studies,' more than half (34) are based on data from the previous century, when the pit bull type was extremely rare, constituting at most ≤ 1-2% of the entire pet dog population (as opposed to approximately 6% now). The use of such old data is a serious flaw."
Our nonprofit continues to track modern relevant peer-reviewed medical studies since 2011. Only one study from our modern table (Horswell et al., 2011) is included in the misleading AVMA paper. Criteria for inclusion in our trauma study table requires being a multi-year retrospective study of U.S. Level 1 trauma center dog bite patients (≥ 15 patients), published from 2011 to 2019, the inclusion of dog breed information, and the scientific research conducted by medical doctors.
In the AVMA policy paper, 56% of all cited studies in the tables are from foreign countries.2 We do not accept studies from other countries, as the biting breed population is likely different in "Austria" than it is in a U.S. city. 52% of studies cited by the AVMA are from the last century when the pit bull population was at least five times lower than it is today. The AVMA paper is a sham, designed to obfuscate "bites" versus mauling injuries and to undo breed-specific laws in the United States.
2The 2014 AVMA policy paper has 65 total citations. The tables only list 45 studies. The 56% number is derived from 25 of the 45 studies listed in the tables as being from a foreign country, thus losing significant relevance.
02/23/20: Denver Dog Bite Statistics by Breed and Injury Severity (2017-2019)
02/06/18: Castle Rock Should Change Its Pit Bull Policy, by Kory Nelson
10/20/16: Back Story of the Montreal Pit Bull Ban, What the Vets Omitted in Their Report
05/05/09: Alexandra Semyonova: Heritability of Behavior in the Abnormally Aggressive Dog
08/25/08: The History of the Denver Pit Bull Ban and the Victims that Prompted New Law