More Pit Bulls, Less Crime?

I’m just catching up on Steve Sailer’s latest dissection of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest spiel of sophistry in which the over-hyped, afro-coiffedBlink-author-turned-seminar-guru attempts to fashion a critique of racial profiling around the facile analogy of pit-bull attacks. 

Sailer’s analysis is incisive as usual, but even as he makes mincemeat of Gladwell’s faulty logic and specious statistical assumptions, his treatment of the relevant dog-attack data leaves me wondering if there could be something that’s being overlooked in the pit bull controversy.

Here is Sailer’s summary of some key points from a statistical report published in the Journal of Veterinary Medicine:

…if you go look up the data on people killed by dogs, you find that of the 238 deaths from
        1979-1998 for which the breed of dog is known, 66 were due to pit  bull-type breeds (along with 10 people killed by part-pit bull mixed breed dogs). Pure-bred Rottweilers were far back in second place with 39 kills and pure-bred German Shepherds in third with 17
. Unfortunately, we don’t have terribly good data on the number of dogs by breed, but certainly the Labrador retriever is vastly more common than all the various pit bull breeds combined, yet only one person in those two decades was killed by a pure bred Labrador (and four by part

        Moreover, the danger to children (who comprise about 70% of dog fatalities) from pit bulls relative to Labradors is even worse than  these numbers suggest because sensible dog owners buy dog breeds based on likely exposure to children. If you have a small child, you are much
        more likely to buy a Labrador to be his pet rather than a pit bull. 

Beyond the undeniable fact that feared breeds are implicated in a far greater percentage of all fatal attacks, the  point that screams out from these numbers is that fatal dog attacks are still pretty damn rare. The specter of sanguine beasts may play into the public’s appetite for sensational news coverage, but in terms of real-world risk, children are vastly more likely to die from drowning in backyard swimming pools or even in bicycle accidents than from being mauled by a canine, regardless of breed.

In highlighting the discrepancy between perceived and actual risk relating to the comparably emotional subject of "children and guns," Independent Institute policy analyst, David Kopel provides some sound statistical perspective:

If any object which is associated with about 236 accidental
childhood deaths a year [this refers to the number  of children under the age of 15 who died from accidental firearm discharges in 1990, according to statistics compiled by the National Safety Council] should be outlawed, then it would be logical to
call for the prohibition of bicycles (over 400 child deaths a year).
An even larger number of children are killed by motor vehicles
(3,263).  Four hundred and thirty-two children die annually in fires
caused by adults who fall asleep while smoking; the 432 deaths would,
by the handgun-banning logic, make a persuasive case for outlawing

    If the focus is on children under age 5, then
outlawing swimming pools and bathtubs (350 drowning deaths) or
cigarette lighters (90 deaths) would save many more children under 5
from accidental deaths than would a gun ban (34 deaths)

Thus, the "if it saves one life" anti-accident logic applies with much
greater force to bicycles, automobiles, bathtubs, swimming pools,
tobacco, and cigarette lighters than to guns.  Unlike gunowners, owners
of these other objects have no specific Constitutional right of
possession.  Thus, there would [be]
little Constitutional objection to a ban on future production of these
items.  And while bicycles, bathtubs, and cigarette lighters make life
more convenient, these objects do not save lives or prevent injury.

Kopel’s implicit point about the life-saving utility of firearms is especially important in considering the breed-specific dog attack data. Until University of Chicago economist John Lott (notwithstanding his questionable scruples) dramatically re-framed the gun control debate with his econometric analyses arguing that liberalized gun laws correlate with criminal deterrence, it remained an article of faith among most social scientists that private gun possession was a net liability for society, at least in terms of risk analysis. By failing to consider effects of gun ownership within a two-tailed research paradigm, sociologists had overlooked the protective and deterrent value that was, to whatever arguable degree, always part of reality.

Given that the incidence of fatality associated with ostensibly vicious dog breeds (132 total deaths over a two decade period attributed to "pit-bull type breeds," pure-bred Rottweilers, and German Shepards combined) is profoundly smaller than that associated with firearms (or cigarette lighters, bathtubs, automobiles, etc), it wouldn’t take much of a crime-deterring counter-effect to offset the headline-grabbing horror stories.

There is no question that many people choose to keep notorious dog breeds precisely because of the protective benefits they imagine such dogs will provide.  And as with guns, this may be especially true for people who live in urban areas where the risks and realities of crime are more immediate.  The question that necessarily arises is whether this belief is supported by empirical evidence; and if so, to what extent?

It may be that for every toddler who is tragically mauled by a snarling pit bull, there are two toddlers whose lives are saved when the same type of dog snarls and threatens to maul a would-be intruder.  My cursory Googling on the subject hasn’t turned up any relevant research, but as municipalities rush to draft ordinances banning ill-reputed dog breeds, the question seems worth taking seriously. 

If anyone knows of any data on this subject, please drop me a note.