LAST SPRING D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) introduced legislation in the D.C. Council classifying pit bull terriers as de facto dangerous dogs, making them and their owners the subjects of tough regulations. Mrs. Schwartz is again pressing her bill in the aftermath of the death of Costello Robinson. Believed to be the city's oldest active firefighter, he died last Friday before he was to have surgery on a knee injured two days earlier when he was knocked down by a pit bull while responding to a call.
The bill would require that all pit bulls in the District be muzzled while in public, properly confined when at home and identified by signs indicating the presence of a dangerous dog. In addition, owners would be required to carry $50,000 of liability insurance to cover personal injuries caused by the dogs. Unlike current law, which requires the city to call a hearing before deciding whether an individual dog is to be declared dangerous, the Schwartz proposal would consider pit bulls an inherent threat and apply the stringent requirements immediately.
Three years ago, the District decided pit bulls and Rottweilers were dangerous breeds. Legislation was proposed requiring owners to carry special liability coverage and to keep their dogs muzzled in public and registered with the city. The Rottweiler lobby was too strong, however, so that breed was excluded from the bill. The pit bull provision made it into law on an emergency basis. It lapsed after 90 days. When the council tried to make the law permanent, the Barry administration said the bill would cost nearly $1 million a year to implement. When the council tried to pass another emergency bill, it was stymied by the financial control board, which found the measure lacked a mandatory cost estimate. So the pit bulls eventually went free too.
Now as then, it is not at all clear that a specific breed prohibition could survive a court challenge. There also are concerns about the capacity of the police to enforce these tough regulations as well as about the ability of animal control staff to handle an influx of confiscated dogs. Those questions can be addressed in public hearings when the council returns from vacation in September. In the interim, current laws should be enforced. That means coming down hard on any owner who uses any dog as a weapon to intimidate or harm anybody or any animal.