Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

Gambling, an activity as old as human civilization itself, is the act of wagering or betting on an event with an uncertain outcome, often with the primary intent of winning money or material goods. The legal landscape of gambling in the United States is complex, varying significantly from state to state, and evolving continuously as attitudes and technologies change.

Historical Context and Legal Evolution

Historically, gambling was often viewed with skepticism by lawmakers, leading to strict regulations or outright prohibitions. However, over time, attitudes have shifted. Today, many forms are not only legal but are also major sources of revenue for states, through the operation of casinos, lotteries, and, more recently, the legalization of sports betting.

State Laws and Regulations

Each state in the U.S. has the authority to regulate gambling within its borders. This has led to a patchwork of laws, with some states like Nevada and New Jersey being known for their liberal laws, while others maintain stricter controls. For example, Utah and Hawaii have a near-total ban.

Casinos, both commercial and tribal, operate in many states, subject to state laws and regulations. State lotteries, too, are a popular form of legal gambling, with proceeds often earmarked for public education and other state-funded programs.

Online Gambling

The advent of the internet has dramatically transformed the gambling landscape. Online gambling includes activities like poker, casinos, sports betting, and lotteries. The legality of online gambling is complex and varies by state. The Federal Wire Act of 1961, initially enacted to combat organized crime, plays a significant role in regulating interstate gambling activities, including online gambling. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA) further regulates online gambling by prohibiting gambling businesses from knowingly accepting payments in connection with unlawful internet gambling.

Sports Betting

The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA) effectively outlawed sports betting nationwide, excluding a few states. However, in 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned PASPA, allowing states to legalize sports betting if they wish. Since then, numerous states have legalized sports betting, with some allowing it online and others only in person at licensed venues.

Social and Economic Impacts

The legalization and expansion have significant social and economic implications. Proponents argue that it creates jobs, generates tax revenue, and boosts tourism. On the other hand, opponents raise concerns about addiction, financial hardship, and potential increases in crime.

Problem Gambling and Regulation

In response to these concerns, many states have established regulatory bodies to oversee activities and promote responsible gambling. Measures to mitigate problem gambling include setting age limits, offering self-exclusion programs, and providing resources for individuals seeking help with addiction.


Gambling, as a form of entertainment and a significant economic activity, continues to evolve, reflecting changes in technology, societal attitudes, and legal frameworks. While it offers potential economic benefits, it also poses challenges that require careful regulation and a balanced approach to protect the public interest. As technology continues to advance and societal attitudes shift, the landscape of laws in the U.S. will likely continue to change, necessitating ongoing evaluation and adaptation.

References and Further Reading

Modification History

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  10/31/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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