A proposal to scuttle a nine-year-old law that bars ownership of pit bulls in Prince George's County has turned into its own kind of rhetorical dogfight, with finger-pointing, hand-wringing and even allusions to racism.
The county imposed the ban in 1996 after a series of pit bull attacks, complaints from residents about dogs wandering the streets and reports of young men pitting their animals against each other for money, drugs or social status.
Prince George's County Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), who wants to repeal the statute, said the law is ineffective and expensive -- costing about $600,000 to carry out over the past two years, according to a recent county audit. Prince George's captures and boards about 1,000 pit bulls annually, euthanizing about 800.
"Public policy should make sense," said Hendershot, who plans to introduce the bill as soon as this week. "It shouldn't be overly expensive, and it ought to be fair. The pit bull ban is none of the above."
As the debate begins, council members will decide whether the ban is a failure, as Hendershot asserts, or an essential tool to protect residents from the stocky, muscular dogs that have a reputation for aggressive, sometimes dangerous behavior.
The issue is stirring passions. Some people pushing for the law's repeal have inserted civil rights into the discussion and have likened the ban to unfair racial profiling, saying pit bulls are being singled out. Opponents of the ban hope that argument will prove persuasive with the nine-member council, which has a majority of ethnic minorities.
Patricia M. Doty, an aide to Hendershot who lives in Calvert County and owns two pit bulls, calls the law "animal racism."
In an e-mail to council members, another proponent of repealing the law wrote: "We as an American people have recognized the evils of racism, understanding that negative stereotypes of cultural groups are often not the norm, and innocent citizens should not be punished. In the same way you must recognize the mistaken logic in" breed-specific legislation.
Council member David Harrington (D-Cheverly), who said he probably will vote against lifting the ban, said equating the plight of the dogs to racial profiling or the civil rights movement is a significant stretch.
"People are trying to make a comparison that is just not there," he said.
Council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) shakes his head at the attempt.
"You have to understand dog lovers," he said. "They will go to the extreme to save their breed of dog."
Hendershot said that he supports the dog owners and that he compares the law to other crimes against humanity. "If you did the same thing to human beings, it would be a grotesque violation of human rights, and indeed it would be called genocide," Hendershot said.
Prince George's is not the only jurisdiction to try to control pit bulls. Miami and Denver have enacted bans. California is considering statewide legislation that would allow cities and counties to enact breed-specific legislation, which is illegal under state law.
In Cincinnati, however, such a ban was lifted five years ago after officials found that the law was affecting pit bulls that were not considered dangerous.
Dean said that he is sympathetic to the dog owners and that he thinks amending, but not repealing, the ban has merit. One possibility, he said, is offering owners a chance to save their dogs through some form of mitigation, such as muzzling.
Harrington agreed, saying one argument that has resonated with him is that the law "blames the dog instead of focusing on the owners."
A task force commissioned to review the ban recommended the repeal, suggesting that the law be replaced with one that does not specify a breed. Hendershot's bill requires that all potentially dangerous dogs, regardless of breed, be registered with the county.
Hendershot's bill defines a "potentially dangerous dog" as one that causes an injury to a person or domestic animal, provokes or chases a person or domestic animal in an aggressive manner or is running at large and impounded by the county at least twice in a year.
The bill requires that potentially dangerous dogs be vaccinated, be kept in a secure area, complete a behavior program and have implanted in them a microchip that contains owner identification. If a dog does not exhibit potentially dangerous behavior for 36 months, it is taken off the list.
Task force member Rodney C. Taylor said statistics show that 70 percent of the pit bulls being picked up by animal management are "nice dogs." Taylor, the county's animal control director, said some of the most dangerous dogs never are impounded because the focus has been on pit bulls.
"We found that we were grouping good dogs with bad dogs and penalizing good pet owners -- the task force didn't see that as being the right answer," Taylor said.
Phillip Nunn of Fort Washington, who supports the ban, said he is not sure what the right solution is. "If you look at the history with these particular dogs, whether fairly or unfairly, there's a problem," he said. "They are intimidating. And we just have to have something in place."