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Electronic gaming device (copy)

Missouri estimates that more than 14,000 unlicensed gambling devices operate in the state, including St. Joseph.

On the surface, last week’s public destruction of illegal gambling machines must have proved satisfying to Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd.

It was Zahnd who led one of the only successful felony prosecutions of the kinds of unregulated gambling machines that operate in bars, truck stops, gas stations and fraternal organizations across the state.

So when a judge ordered that five devices be destroyed publicly in Platte County, the prosecutor didn’t have to be asked twice. A backhoe accomplished the task on a county road. Who doesn’t love to see something crushed (as long as no one is hurt)?

A closer look, however, should lead to some frustration. Zahnd’s prosecution was supposed to open the floodgates to a crackdown on the estimated 14,000 gray market gambling machines in every corner of the state. So far, the Platte County case is one, if not the only one brought to a felony conclusion.

Missouri lawmakers should be concerned about the way these devices siphon tax revenue from schools, local communities, veterans’ programs and state government. Meanwhile, they literally operate in the shadows, meaning that the devices can be accessed easily by minors with few of the controls designed to limit problem gambling.

Instead of decisive action, legislation targeting these rogue machines gets high-centered on politics, the debate over broader gambling issues and concerns that some proposals served as a Trojan horse for one particular out-of-state company to corner the market.

But there shouldn’t be a market to corner. The Missouri Constitution limits casino gambling to licensed riverboat facilities. Some believe gray market machines get around the law because they’re “pre-reveal” or “no chance” devices that tell players if they will win on the next turn, before pulling the slot handle.

That’s semantics. Players choose to keep playing, even if they won’t win during the next round, because they’re gambling for a bigger payoff down the road. Officials from the Missouri Gaming Commission tested the devices and found that they operate like slot machines. A judge in Platte County agreed. Even back in the Tom Pendergast era, slot machines that dispensed gum were viewed as illegal gambling devices.

These days, technology and lax enforcement allowed these machines to proliferate, despite legal and regulatory findings that should pave the way for broader action.

With the destruction of five machines in Platte County, only an estimated 13,995 remain in the state of Missouri. Without some definitive action from the state on this matter, these devices will be spared the backhoe for quite some time.

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