In early 2011, several South Dakota lawmakers sponsored legislation requiring all South Dakotans older than 21 to buy a gun for self-protection. At the same time, the Aberdeen City Council was considering an ordinance that would have banned certain breeds of dogs.
Though the gun-ownership requirement was meant as a joking rebuke to the Obamacare insurance-purchase mandate, I thought it raised some important issues and deserved more serious consideration than it actually got. I tend to like breed bans too: Who can doubt that a world without cocker spaniels would be a better place?
Part of me wishes the city would ban dogs altogether. From time to time, canines in our neighborhood seem to outnumber people, and I can get pretty tired of the barking-dog serenade that often erupts just as I have fallen asleep. And while most Aberdeen dog owners are careful to clean up after their pets, the few who aren't can make a day at the park a lot less pleasant.
But despite the occasional annoyance, I am grateful to my dog-owning neighbors. Dogs make for a safer neighborhood, and, in general, for a safer society. Just as the chance of encountering an armed homeowner deters potential criminals, the possibility of meeting up with an angry dog makes crime a much less attractive proposition.
Gun-rights advocates point out (quite rightly) that, while Great Britain has banned private gun ownership and seen crime skyrocket, American gun ownership has soared and crime rates have dropped (declining 65 percent from 1993 levels). It's worth noting that, at the same time Americans were acquiring more guns, they brought home more dogs as well: another factor likely helping deter crime.
Increasing dog ownership has also meant more freedom outside the home. For women in particular, bringing along that "companion with superhuman powers who cares selflessly about your welfare" extends greatly the times and places they can walk without fear: A couple of big dogs are pretty effective in helping "take back the night."
But there is a potential problem. Those dogs that are best at extending their owner's freedom and safety (e.g., Dobermans and pit bulls) can, on occasion, be a threat to the freedom and safety of others. A couple of years ago, I took my family to one of my favorite California beaches. We were doing just fine until another family arrived with a pit bull. Well, they soon had their own private beach: perhaps exactly what they wanted.
Now obviously this wasn't so much a pit bull problem as an owner problem. But what does one do when a particular breed becomes the dog of choice for problem owners — as the pit bull clearly has? Sunday’s Aberdeen American News editorial suggests stricter controls and heavier penalties for all dog owners — perhaps even requiring microchipping of all pets.
But there’s a much easier way of discouraging irresponsible people from acquiring potentially vicious dogs. Just require all pit bull owners to also buy a cocker spaniel.
Art Marmorstein, Aberdeen, is a professor of history at Northern State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views are his and do not represent NSU.