Gambling Regulations

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Gambling regulations have gone through many waxing and waning periods over its long history of vice, but it appears to be moving slowly towards greater legality. Gambling is one of the fastest growing industries in America, and new casinos are being built all the time. This movement supports a host of other parasitical vices which accompany gambling, and no amount of regulation will address those. The questionable move for the Justice Department to legalize online gambling has exposed a host of new people to this practice.  

Risk and Reward Through History

The history of gambling regulations in the United States is an ebb and flow of permissiveness and prohibition which has tried to help manage the debilitating nature of gambling addiction. Historians have broken up this ebb and flow into “Three Waves” of time periods which reflect the attempt to balance this aspect of culture. The first wave is from the 1600’s to the mid 1800’s (California Council on Problem Gambling). The first American colonists were extremely polarized on the perspective of gambling, as they were made up largely of Puritans and English ruffians. In the extremes of these two conflicting views, gambling was a source of contention and temptation (Rose). 

The Puritans thought gambling was a sin, and the fruit of the devil. As such, “The Puritan-led Massachusetts Bay Colony outlawed not only the possession of cards, dice, and gaming tables (even in private homes), but also dancing and singing. This stance was relaxed slightly the following year so as to allow gaming” (Rose). However, even as the English adventurers indulged in all types of gambling, the archetype of the gambling criminal took root in the collective American psyche at this time. Historians do not ignore this, as “One prominent researcher speculates that the appeal of gambling was probably heightened by the frontier spirit. The desire to explore new worlds is similar to gambling. Both rely heavily on high expectations, risk taking, opportunism, and movement” (Rose). Even today this archetype seduces new generations into the endless cycles of risk, glossing over the authentically pathetic nature of addiction (California Library). 

This archetype was supported by the English adventurers as much as by the restrictive Puritans. The English “settlers brought with them the view that gambling was a harmless diversion. In these colonies, gambling was a popular and accepted activity. Legal gambling tended to be those types that were considered proper gentlemen's diversions” (Rose). However, many have used gambling as a scapegoat for many problems, but sometimes these problems can be used to fuel their solutions. This dance of possibility is the constant flow of gambling regulations. When the colonies found themselves in trouble, leaders called on the ingenuity of their backers;

Although the financial backers of the colonies viewed gambling as a source of the colonies' problems, they began to see it as the solution as well. The Virginia Company of London, the financier of Jamestown in Virginia, was permitted by the Crown to hold lotteries to raise money for the company's colonial venture. (Rose)

This provided a short term fix, but in the end the Crown banned the practice because they were losing money. This regulation provided a bone of contention and gambling practice went underground, as it always does. Some attempts to legalize gambling highlighted the very issues inherent in the practice. As in, “Notable among the later lotteries was a private lottery passed by Congress in 1823 for the beautification of Washington D.C. Unfortunately, the organizers absconded with the proceeds and the winner was never paid” (Rose). Many of those drawn to gambling are those who do not abide by the law, and looking for easy money will seize an opportunity. Money has a way of bringing out the worst in people, as modern lottery winners consistently attest that their winning the lottery has not brought them happiness in the least degree (Chan). 

It was during the early 19th century that gambling became entrenched and legitimized in the lower Mississippi Valley. Riverboats traveling the Mississippi would become a hot bed of gambling, and “the river boats carried passengers who had lots of cash. The south tended to have a more open attitude towards gaming, reflecting the Spanish, French, and early Virginian traditions. New Orleans became the capital for gambling” (Rose). This early momentum is still reflected in the South today. During the 19th century waves of prohibition and release grew into a fervor which favored sanctions as public opinion turned against gambling. This reflect that throughout history, changes in the law follow changes in society. The law is reactive, not proactive.

Legislators do not sit around debating what to do if, say, the Internet is invented. Instead they react to situations brought to their attention, often by stories in the media. (Rose) 

Native Americans & Gambling

The right to profit from gambling was given to the Native American population in part because the lands of their reservations were not conducive to agriculture or others means of production. While this gave the Native population an outlet for industry, after three decades of its development analysts are saying the more successful the industry is the more impoverished the Natives become. A recent study published in the American Indian Law Journal reveals the data collected from “two dozen tribes in the Pacific north-west between 2000 and 2010. During that time, casinos owned by those tribes doubled their total annual take in real terms, to $2.7 billion. Yet the tribes’ mean poverty rate rose from 25% to 29%” (The Economist). Researchers posit this is because cycles of vice such as gambling reinforce other cycles of vice such as laziness and substance abuse (The Economist).

The lack of engaging and fulfilling job opportunities on and surrounding reservation regions has severely limited the scope of daily experience for the Native population. As a result of cultural genocide, losing their ancestral lands, and devastating changes in diet and behavior the Native population suffers the highest rates of depression, suicide, obesity, and substance abuse of all U.S. demographics. In this way the ability to host gambling only increases their cycles of abuse. Ron Whitener, tribal judge, law professor, and member of the Squaxin Island Tribe comments, “These payments can be destructive because the more generous they become, the more people fall into the trap of not working” (The Economist). Those who advocate that such direct payments be structured differently are met with a host of complaints about the lack of opportunities.  

In this way gambling regulations are having the unintended consequence of destabilizing the spirit of this population, and undermining their will to improve. However, opportunities are not only seized, but created. Keven Goodell a Siletz tribe member who works on the forestry crew comments, they, had several job openings last year—but no qualified applicants, according to Goodell. He says he tried to get young people interested, but they told him they didn’t want to work in the woods. With free housing and health care, ‘a lot of people have figured out a way to use the system to survive,’ he says. ‘Why get a job if you don’t need one?’ ” (The Economist)

Types of Gambling

As gambling regulations have ebbed and flowed over the years new styles of gambling have emerged while the old fashioned ones have not slowed down. These are a few of the types of gambling:

Slot Machines


Sports Betting and Racing





Online Gambling



Online Gambling (Big Deal)

Online Gambling

Online gambling is the newest form and jurisdiction for gaming, and its non-locality is attracting and allowing for new ages and demographics to gamble. The most recent drama in gambling regulations deals with “The Wire Act was established long before the Internet existed, in 1961, to prohibit interstate gambling, but it later evolved to cover wagers placed online” (Devaney). However, this was reinterpreted by the Justice Department in 2011, enabling most forms of online gambling. There are now those who are debating this policy change in favor of more stringent regulations, but not complete restriction. Too heavy a hand such as “An online gaming ban will not only drive an existing black market further into the shadows, but will put consumers and children at even greater risk” (Devaney). As has been the consistent theme throughout history it is finding balance in gambling regulations which is key, and a very difficult balance to strike. 


With the decentralization of gambling via the Internet gambling regulations may be entering a period of being phased out as the means of enforcing regulations becomes more challenging. While taxes from gambling does aid many regions in balancing their budgets it is unlikely how sustainable this practice is as gambling supports other debilitating vices which undermine societal health. The limits of freedom are again questioned in how gambling regulations are managed in lieu of the potential damage the practice can do, as evidenced most clearly in the Native populations.

Works Cited

Big Deal. “Types of Gambling.”, 2016. Retrieved from:

California Council on Problem Gambling. “US Gambling History & Expansion.”, 2016. Retrieved from:

California Library. “History of Gambling in the United States.”, 2016. Retrieved from:

Chan, Melissa. “Here’s How Winning the Lottery Makes You Miserable.” TIME, 12 Jan. 2016. Retrieved from:

Devaney, Tim. “Online gambling the target of new legislation.” The Hill, 6 Feb. 2015. Retrieved from:

Rose, Nelson I. “Gambling and the Law®: 19th Century Games, 21st Century Players.”, 2015.

The Economist. “Of slots and sloth.” The Economist, 17 Jan. 2015. Retrieved from: