Editorials

New gaming machines popping up at Missouri gas stations. Aren’t they illegal?

Missouri is stumbling into a thorny controversy over the latest method to separate gamblers from their money.

So-called “no-chance” gaming machines are popping up at convenience stores and gas stations across the state, mostly in rural areas. They look and act like the slot machines you can find at any state-licensed casino.

There is a crucial difference, though. A no-chance machine can reveal the outcome of the next play in advance. A player can choose to know how their next wager will play out before they make it.

You’re not alone if you’re wondering why anyone would play without that information. Apparently, though, thousands of Missourians want to gamble so badly that they don’t ask for it.

Designers say the option of knowing the outcome means the device is not a game of skill or a game of chance — and it’s therefore outside the legal supervision of the Missouri Gaming Commission.

That’s where the controversy begins.

Experts have concluded that “the possession and operation of the devices are illegal under Missouri statute,” a spokeswoman for the Missouri Gaming Commission told The Star.

The commission has received roughly 100 complaints about no-chance slots, from places such as St. Joseph, Claycomo and Poplar Bluff.

Yet it isn’t clear how, or even if, the machines can be removed. The gaming commission refers complaints to the Missouri Highway Patrol, which in turn may ask local police and prosecutors to pursue cases against business owners who feature the machines.

Platte County prosecutor Eric Zahnd is pursuing a case against a firm involved with the devices. To date, though, other enforcement actions have been hard to find.

No one is quite sure what to do with no-chance slots. Meanwhile, the machines whir away.

We’re quite sure the Missouri legislature needs to figure this out next year, as quickly as possible. The state is losing millions in revenue it would receive if the machines were taxed like regular gambling devices.

The machines are unregulated, too. No one makes certain that they’re operating properly. The store owners hosting the machines get a small cut of the take but have no supervisory role in their use.

The idea that a machine that takes money from customers and awards prizes isn’t a game of skill or a game of chance is absurd. Lawmakers must decide how to classify the machines or concede that they exist in a weird twilight-zone category that requires new oversight.

Small gas station owners’ desire to make a few dollars from this industry is understandable. But the people of Missouri have said they want gambling restricted to casinos and a handful of other locations, and they want gambling revenue to pay for education.

If these machines are legal, they could be on every corner.

Someone — perhaps the attorney general — should seek a statewide injunction to shut down the machines for now. Then lawmakers should hash it out next year to make clear what is and isn’t legal in the state.

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