Recently the Government announced that it was going to ban machetes. This morning, the papers report that ministers are planning to announce a ban on disposable vapes, handing a profitable new product to black marketeers in the name of protecting children.
Generally, this country is very happy to ban things. Contra the residual rightist delusion about a stout, liberty-loving yeomanry, the British are whatever their other qualities a dizzyingly authoritarian people.
(I refer again to my favourite poll; live ammunition was – just barely – the only response to riots those asked by YouGov didn’t support. Or my least favourite: one-quarter of Brits thought nightclubs should never re-open after Covid.)
This makes it all the more fascinating to see what the Government won’t ban. Over the past couple of weeks, we have learned that this list includes purpose-bred fighting dogs which kill and main children and adults alike.
It is testament, perhaps, to the power of charities in general, and the animal lobby in particular. Having so recently brawled with the RSPB over its (perfectly sensible) reform to environmental regulations, it is perhaps understandable that ministers are reluctant to go toe-to-toe with the RSPCA, which has made a mission of the cause of legalising dangerous dogs.
A ban on XL Bullies, the breed at the centre of the current controversy, is also in the unusual position of being disfavoured by the hoi oligoi; coverage in the progressive press seems to broadly follow the pattern of “dogs don’t kill people, people kill people” (here dressed up as nature vs nurture) that will be familiar to anyone who follows the firearms debate in the United States.
Finally, there is a painful argument about state capacity. How can we possibly ban a specific breed, runs this argument, when it isn’t even recognised by the Kennel Club?
But that argument is nonsense. As advocates for a ban on XL Bullies have pointed out, we already have breed-specific bans in this country; Section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 bans four, of which the most important was the Pit Bull Terrier. Indeed, XL Bullies were actually considered a Pit Bull cross until a breeder used a different breed definition to overturn that interpretation in court in 2015.
And who’d have thought it, but the number of fatal dog attacks remained at a constant low, despite the growth of the population (human and canine) whilst that regime was in force. Then it went up once the breed responsible for most current attacks started being imported. Mysterious.
So we clearly can, and do, use breed descriptions to make law. The lack of a breed definition from the Kennel Club is also no obstacle – it’s specifications have no privileged or official status. The United Kennel Club, a US-based organisation also operating in the UK, has a detailed breed definition for the American Bully; ministers could either adopt it or use it as the basis for a new classification.
(It is also worth pointing out that nobody seems to have any difficulty identifying these dogs when breeding, selling, or buying them. It’s only when regulation is threatened that it becomes suddenly impossible to tell one dog from another.)
As for the nature versus nurture argument, there is no doubt that the owner plays some role in shaping the character of a dog – and that’s a solid case for requiring licences for the ownership of breeding of dogs deemed (potentially) dangerous.
But regardless, it is a simple fact that the overwhelming majority of dog attacks are perpetrated by a small handful of breeds, and that those breeds have historically been bred for fighting.
Even if we assume that has no impact on the baseline instincts of a dog (and there is no good reason to think that) it also means their physical characteristics make any attack much more dangerous. An XL Bully is heavier than an average adult man; an attack by one is a much more frightening proposition than a savaging from a Pomeranian, even if you choose to believe either species is equally likely to go for your throat (or your ankle).
It would, of course, be grimly in keeping with the general direction of travel of British policy if ministers, either due to an embarrassing failure of state capacity or for fear of the killer dogs lobby, ducked the question of targeted legislation in favour of imposing expensive, onerous regulations on all dogs and hoping the problem goes away. That’s what we’ve done with knives, for example.
But at least that would be something. At present, we have a state prepared to set its face sternly against someone enjoying a sugary drink or a cigarette outside a pub – but which maintains the right to own a 150lb purpose-bred fighting machine as part and parcel of a free society. What a charmingly quirky island we are.