Cheering, Mourning After Denver Pit Bull Legalization Bill Falls One Vote Short

An image from our "Parade of Pit Bulls 2013" slideshow.
An image from our "Parade of Pit Bulls 2013" slideshow. Photo by Darian Simon
Denver's pit bull ban lives on. Two weeks after a Denver City Council majority voted to effectively repeal a prohibition on three pit bull-related breeds that's been in place since 1989 (and led to thousands of dogs being euthanized), councilmembers failed to override a veto by Mayor Michael Hancock — the first of his two-plus terms in office. The final vote on February 24 was 8-5 in favor of Councilmember Chris Herndon's proposal, one shy of the nine needed.

The reaction from bill supporters and detractors on social media varied wildly, with the former expressing disappointment and anger in equal measure and the latter championing the outcome as a triumph that will save lives.

Shira Hereld of Replace Denver BSL (the letters stand for "breed-specific legislation"), one of the main groups advocating for change, doesn't soft-pedal the outcome. "We saw fear win out over fact and an illusion of safety win out over an actual plan for safety," she maintains via email. "We heard many council members who voted no state clearly that BSL isn't working for Denver — but were too afraid to try the first proposal in three decades that could actually have solved these issues."

Meanwhile, Paul Vranas, who spearheaded a petition and letter-writing campaign that was instrumental in ratcheting up public pressure on Hancock and wavering members of council, resists the temptation to declare the results an unalloyed victory. "It is with a mix of emotions that I and other opponents of this bill celebrate city council's failure to override Mayor Hancock's veto," he writes. "On one hand, I am glad that this bill did not pass. On the other hand, I am disappointed that a bill like this made it this far in Denver City Council without ever engaging the people of Denver and our registered neighborhood organizations."

The February 10 vote in favor of Herndon's plan was 7-4, with its author joined on the "yes" portion of the equation by Kendra Black, Amanda Sandoval, Jamie Torres, Jolon Clark, Robin Kneich and Chris Hinds, while Debbie Ortega, Amanda Sawyer, Kevin Flynn and Paul Kashmann turned thumbs-down. Two members were absent that night: Stacie Gilmore, one of Hancock's closest allies on the council, and Candi CdeBaca, who has frequently pushed back against his policies.

Because Gilmore had voted against the bill at an earlier stage and CdeBaca had supported it, the Replace Denver BSL forces knew they needed to flip one vote, and their top target was Amanda Sawyer.

"Councilwoman Sawyer said it was clear that breed-specific legislation doesn't work," Hereld told us after Hancock's February 14 veto. "Her concern was that Denver Animal Protection didn't have the capacity to properly enforce the ordinance. But Denver Animal Protection has said they do believe they can enforce it. So we're encouraging her and all the other councilmembers to talk to Denver Animal Protection so they can take that concern off their plates."

Sawyer was soon inundated with arguments, pro and con. On February 20, she tweeted that she'd received "over 800 emails and hundreds of social media posts," and in another post, she shared examples from two pit bull defenders. One read in part: "You are a sell out, liked by no one and Denver wants you OUT of office ASAP!!!! I wonder how you would feel if someone discriminated & outlawed your kids, for example!! Or a family member you loved dearly!!!??? You probably wouldn't care since you have no heart!!!!!!!!!" Another proclaimed, "The blood of these innocent, defenseless animals is on your hands. You just made mass murder LEGAL!!!!!!!"

click to enlarge An image from our "Parade of Pit Bulls 2013" slideshow. - PHOTO BY DARIAN SIMON
Photo by Darian Simon
"Our office has received plenty of what I would deem to be inappropriate outreach from both sides of the pit bull lobby this week," Sawyer divulged in another message. "And none of it sways me either way. As I have said, the only thing that would change my vote would be a change in facts."

Replace Denver BSL responded by touting plenty of studies that it said demonstrated how bans are less effective than breed-neutral statutes that focus on owner responsibility — data countered by the anti-pit bull contingent with contradictory reports and oodles of TV news stories portraying the dogs as potential killing machines.

In the end, Sawyer held firm, and so did the other council doubters, sealing the proposition's fate.

Afterward, Hereld expressed her gratitude "to the council members who spoke up in support, citing expert evidences, scientific fact and a positive vision for Denver's future" before posing the key question: "What's next?"

Her answer: "We plan to move forward to end BSL in Denver, likely with a ballot vote, though we are still discussing our options. We had already planned to turn Replace Denver BSL into a nonprofit and focus on spreading education around living safely with dogs — we still plan to do so, and will be sure to include community engagement/input and education in our next push. We're not done, and we won't be until BSL is a thing of Denver's past."

Vranas is also looking ahead. "The people of Denver who have joined me in opposing this bill will only accept the legalization of pit bulls if it is done in conjunction with a comprehensive plan that proves the city’s ability to deliver education, reasonable levels of pet registration, responsible ownership and compliance with leash laws," he says.

As for a potential ballot measure, Vranas promises that "we will fight against it with the same fervor that we have from the beginning. We are confident that the voters of Denver will not accept this half-baked plan."

At the same time, he contends, "The people of Denver do not want to be dragged along in a fight on this failed bill for the next nine months. There are too many other pressing issues that need the attention of the citizens of Denver. l believe that the best approach to move forward from here is negotiating a collaborative solution, with input from across the city, to come up with comprehensive solutions to the challenges that we have related to pet laws affecting ALL PETS and to provide an incremental path forward for the legalization of pit bulls. We think that the people of Denver are tired of the hard-lining and grandstanding that we have been subjected to within so many levels of our government. We believe a negotiated compromise will be the best way to actually solve the challenges that the people of Denver have in this matter."

Then he adds: "We hope that advocates from Replace Denver BSL feel the same way, too."
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts