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Before this bill was rushed through the Senate, cautious poker players or sports bettors could choose to patronize companies that are subject to market regulation, or are incorporated in countries that respect the rule of law. Most of those sites also have vigilant child-protection measures in place, and some even have stopgap features players who know their own weaknesses can use to limit their betting. Watchdog groups have sprung up to monitor the fairness and integrity of these sites (private, non-government regulation—imagine that!).
Immediately after the ban passed Congress, many of the major gaming sites announced they'd no longer do business with U.S. customers. Most I'd imagine were intimidated by the U.S. Department of Justice's recent penchant for plucking foreign gaming site executives out of U.S. airports and tossing them in prison, despite the fact that their businesses were legal in the country where they were incorporated, and where they were citizens (think of the implications there for Americans traveling abroad).
So once the major gaming sites stop doing business with U.S. customers, who is that going to affect? The problem gambler? The curious minor who swiped his parents' credit card?
Not likely. The people who are going to be affected by the ban are the millions of Americans who play online poker recreationally—and responsibly. But that $12 billion per year isn't going to simply dry up. Problem gamblers and minors will still be able to find places online to make wagers.
Any attempt to prohibit consensual activity is going to create black and gray markets. The legitimate, law-abiding gaming sites may now be out of reach for Americans, but that'll create a niche for truly unregulated sites. These sites will be far more prone to fraud, won't much care about the age of their customers, and customers who are defrauded will have no recourse.
There's also no telling who's behind them. But it's probably a safe bet (pardon the pun) to say that the people operating black market, blatantly illegal gambling sites will include a significant criminal element.
Some say the GOP pushed this ban to light a fire under family values voters. Others say their intent was more nefarious—to protect established gambling interests from online competitors. There may be some truth in both of those explanations, though I think the main motivation for the bill was simply the moral aversion to gambling held by its chief sponsors—Goodlatte, Kyl, and Leach — and a desire to impose that moral rectitude on the rest of the country.
What does seem clear is that none of the people behind this bill were interested in thoughtful debate, any serious consideration of the bill's implications or consequences, or the principle of a limited, "leave us alone" federal government.
Polls show that Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to a federal ban on Internet gambling. Industry experts estimate that some 15-20 million Americans wager online each year. The overwhelming majority do so responsibly. This largely apolitical group could well get politically motivated the first time they try to log on, and are told their small-stakes poker game has now been outlawed by the Republican leadership in Congress. If this was a political move, there's a pretty good chance it'll backfire, and cost the GOP more votes than it wins them.
Radley Balko is a senior editor of Reason. This column originally appeared on FoxNews.com.