It's nice to know that, unlike the good people of Minnetonka, Minn., I can drive a muddy car without running afoul of the law. Or that unlike for citizens of Alaska, it's not illegal for me to give a moose a beer. I also take great solace that, unlike in Fargo, N.D., I can wear a hat while dancing without fear of going to jail.
Lots of antiquated and admittedly amusing laws remain on the books across America's 50 states, created during a time when government felt its place was to control the most mundane standards of behavior. Many people call them dumb laws, and that's hard to argue with as well. But the saving grace for the vast majority of these legal gems is that they're typically local, and also — judging by the number of restrictions involving covered wagons — very old.
A more pressing concern today is that the nanny-state impulse of yore remains alive and as emboldened as ever, with the invasion of our personal rights affecting the number of ounces in our soft drinks, the types of cars we can buy, the size of our toilets, the light bulbs we use, and on and on. When politicians today seek to control our behavior it leads inevitably to three certainties: less freedom, higher costs, and overall bad outcomes.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the current federal ban on sports betting. In all but four states, it's outright illegal to wager on professional or college sports, even though it's a widely accepted activity, routinely done in office pools and even by presidents of the U.S. When a law turns the president and 47 million Americans into criminals simply for betting on the Super Bowl outcome, what we have is a dumb law.
The current federal proscription against sports betting was codified in 1992 when President George H. W. Bush signed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act into law, and 25 years later it has beyond all evidence proven to be a failure. As sports betting moves into the mainstream and continues to grow to the tune of over $150 billion per year, 98 percent of it now occurs illegally, on the black market and underground, away from legitimate oversight and with billions of dollars flowing overseas.
Betting on sports is an individual choice, just like buying lottery tickets (legal in 47 states) or a charity raffle. Games of chance have been a form of entertainment and leisure since before the country was founded, but for some reason Americans can watch football experts on mainstream network broadcasts tell their audience to "take the points," even when doing so remains illegal for over 90 percent of their viewers.
PASPA didn't put an end to wagering; it's just driven betting underground where it helps fund organized crime and operates without regulation or transparency. Not surprisingly, this has sparked the concern of law enforcement, who are now partnering with lawmakers and industry officials to repeal the current federal ban on wagering. It's an enormous red flag when the police and sheriffs who protect us stand in support for the repeal of a criminal statute. They understand better than anyone that PASPA isn't stopping criminal activity, but helping spread it.
Laws that Americans largely disregard serve no purpose other than to abet criminal activity and undermine transparency. They also unravel consumer protections for the weak and vulnerable who may be prone to excess. Our nation learned this the hard way 80 years ago when we discovered that prohibition doesn't work, and we're learning this lesson again with the federal ban on sports wagering.
What does work is oversight, transparency, and commonsense regulations on the gaming industry that instill safeguards for consumers and promote the integrity of sporting events. This can only occur if the federal ban on wagering is repealed and allowed to progress as a legal and well-regulated industry, handled by the individual states. As things currently stand, the black market is left thriving, and consumers have little to no recourse when preyed upon by shady operators.
By all measures, PASPA is simply another failed nanny-state relic that steals our freedoms, costs us money, and overall leaves us worse off. Instead of having legalized betting that could collect billions in tax revenue and create jobs, we're instead lining the pockets of crooks and then spending valuable resources to have law enforcement chase them. Instead of allowing people to engage in their leisure activity of choice in a safe and regulated environment, we're promoting a criminal underground and pumping up overseas operators who provide no consumer protections. It is the worst of all possible situations, and why so many want the law changed.
It's time we let adults in a free society make their own choices for once, and allow law enforcement to focus their resources on more pressing matters — for example, someone in Culpeper, Va., washing their mule on a sidewalk.
Gerard Scimeca is a Virginia attorney and Vice President of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market oriented consumer advocacy organization.
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