Eric Zahnd

Last September — after 18 months of litigation — the gambling machines you may have seen in convenience stores and other locations across Missouri were finally declared illegal. My case against one of the distributors of those machines appears to have been the first case in more than 100 years declaring so-called “gray market” machines illegal.

The machines are also called “no chance” machines, because, if a player is willing to look hard enough, he or she can know the outcome of the game prior to playing. For that reason, proponents of the machines have advertised them as legal — and have even filed a lawsuit in Cole County asserting their legality — despite the criminal conviction of a distributor in Platte County and a long history in Missouri law that such machines are unlawful.

I’ve been asked why I decided to go after these machines. Didn’t I have murderers and rapists to prosecute? (The answer is, yes, far too many.) Was I some sort of anti-gambling zealot bent on forcing my personal morality on others? (The answer is no; I’ve wagered modest amounts in casinos.)

The real answer as to why I directed my staff to dedicate hours of work and thousands of dollars to this prosecution is simple: I took an oath to enforce Missouri law, and these gambling machines are illegal.

In 1913 — during the nascency of Tom Pendergast’s political machine in the city — the Court of Appeals in Kansas City declared gray market gambling machines illegal. Then, it was a machine known as an “automatic gum dispenser,” which ostensibly allowed people to buy gum but really offered the chance for players to win “trade checks” worth more than the nickel they inserted to play.

More than a century later, the technology has changed, but the principle remains the same. The potential of knowing the outcome of a game does not make a gambling machine legal. In Missouri, gambling can only occur on licensed machines in a regulated environment such as the casinos in our state.

There’s a reason for this that has nothing to do with saintly conceptions of ethics. When it comes to gambling, even though the odds are always in favor of the house, Missourians (and citizens of every other state) have decided government needs to play a role to keep things reasonably fair.

As with nearly everything else, it’s also about the money. Missouri collects substantial revenue from the gambling it has legalized, whether at gambling boats or through the lottery. Revenue collected from casinos was down 10% over the six months ending in December, and Missouri officials have testified that the 14,000 or more illegal machines in Missouri could be siphoning off $50 million from state lottery system.

Money collected from legalized gambling in Missouri funds education, veterans programs and programs in local communities, things nearly all of us agree are worth spending money on.

These are good policy reasons to keep gambling regulated in Missouri. But, for me, the decision was even easier. For over a century, Missouri law has said these machines are illegal, and my job is clear: Enforce the laws the legislature makes and the courts interpret.

Eric Zahnd has been

the Platte County Prosecuting

Attorney since 2003.