Miami-Dade County voters will go to the polls Aug. 14 to determine the fate of a 23-year-old ban on so-called “pit bull-type” dogs, which could make it the latest locality to overturn such a law.

Originally passed following the 1989 mauling of seven-year-old Melissa Moreira, the ban has since been superseded by a state law that prohibits Florida local governments from instituting breed-specific legislation. The ban, which continues under a grandfather clause, makes it illegal within county limits to own American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers or “any dog substantially conforming to any of these breeds’ characteristics,” and requires that such dogs which are recovered by the county shelter either be offered for adoption outside the county, or be put down. As described by the Associated Press:

Six animal enforcement officers follow a checklist to determine whether a dog conforms to the county’s definition of a pit bull. Investigators look for dogs with round and well-set eyes, short and stiff coats, a tail that tapers to a point and a somewhat broad chest, among three dozen other physical characteristics – all details that also could describe other breeds.

“The checklist is very subjective,” said Kathy Labrada, enforcement manager for Miami-Dade Animal Services. “What may be a short, stiff coat to me may not be to you, and that’s part of the difficulty in enforcement because it is so subjective.”

While Miami is spending taxpayer dollars paying animal enforcement officers to pull out tape measures and the latest American Kennel Club guide to determine whether someone’s pet should be carted off to the slammer, an April 2012 study from the American Veterinary Medical Association found that “based on behavioral assessments and owner surveys the breeds that were more aggressive towards people were small to medium-sized dogs such as the collies, toy breeds and spaniels.”

While it’s true that larger dogs like pit bulls can do more damage than these smaller breeds, the AVMA also concluded that “controlled studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous,” and that since owners involved in violent acts and other criminal behaviors are more likely to own these sorts of large, stigmatized breeds, “breed correlations may have the owner’s behavior as the underlying causal factor.”

While some study authors suggest limiting ownership of specific breeds might reduce injuries (e.g., pit bull type, German Shepherd Dog) it has not been demonstrated that breed-specific bans affect the rate or severity of bite injuries occurring in the community. Factors that are reliably associated with serious dog bite injury (requiring hospital treatment) in the United States are the victim being a young child and the dog being familiar (belonging to the family, a family friend or neighbor). Strategies known to result in decreased bite incidents include active enforcement of dog control ordinances (ticketing).

Notably, these conclusions are shared (although not universally) by several major homeowners insurers, who paid out $479 million in dog bite claims in 2011, representing one-third of all homeowners liability claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute . While some insurers do include explicit restrictions on insuring owners of some breeds of dogs, State Farm, the nation’s largest homeowners insurer, takes a firm stance against the practice.

“A dog’s tendency to bite depends on such factors as heredity, obedience training, socialization, health, and the victim’s behavior,” the company said in a recent joint release with the American Humane Association. “There are good dogs and bad dogs within every breed, just as there can be responsible and irresponsible owners of each breed. State Farm does not refuse insurance based on the breed of dog a customer owns in any U.S. state.”

Besides Miami-Dade, dozens of other localities still maintain outright bans on pit bull-type dogs, including Denver, Colo.; Prince George’s County, Md.; Independence and Springfield, Mo.; Sturgis, S.D.; Minot, N.D.; and Libby, Mont.

Denver’s law is currently being challenged in court, as Colorado is, along with Florida, among a dozen states that have passed laws prohibiting municipalities from passing breed-specific laws. Other states on the list include Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and, most recently, Massachusetts.

The Illinois law led to the repeal of pre-existing ordinances in Bourbonnais and Mount Olive. Kentucky courts also ruled the city of Louisville’s ban unconstitutional. The mayor of West Allis, Wis., repealed that city’s breed-specific law in 2008, while similar repeals of local ordinances in Topeka, Kan., and Putnum County, W.Va. followed in 2010.

California has also passed legislation prohibiting breed-specific laws, although it exempts mandatory spay and neuter laws. The City of San Francisco currently has an ordinance requiring that pit bull breeds must be spayed or neutered if they are within city limits.

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