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The story is mind-boggling: Three full-fledged gambling casinos, doing business around the clock, policed by their own law-enforcement operation and owned by a group that claims to be an American Indian tribe that is not subject to the laws or jurisdiction of the United States government.
It sounds like a far-fetched plot for a novel. But it’s actually a gaming operation in Robeson County that was just shut down by a massive raid by agencies ranging from the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office to state Alcohol Law Enforcement, to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Department of Homeland Security and units of the North Carolina and Virginia National Guard.
That’s a lot of firepower. But then, it was in response to a lot of firepower — including a private, unlicensed police force armed with assault weapons. Cash, drugs and a host of weapons were seized in the raid.
More than 25 people were arrested in the raids on casino sites in Maxton, Pembroke and Red Springs. More than 200 gaming machines were seized from the three casinos, which were taking in “thousands and thousands of dollars,” according to ALE official Derwin Brayboy. All three buildings had blacked-out windows and contained no clocks.
The people arrested in the raid, according to law enforcement, were members of the Tuscarora Indian Nation Sovereignty Territory. The group, ALE chief Terrance Merriweather said after the raids, “openly expressed beliefs that neither the laws of North Carolina nor the United States applied to them, putting law-abiding citizens in danger. We hope today’s arrests provide a safer community for them.”
We hope so too. And we’re concerned that it took more than a year of investigation before the casinos were shut down. That’s a long time to let a lawless, heavily armed group like that exercise so much power in a community.
And that issue leads us to a larger one: The prevalence of illegal gambling across North Carolina. In short, there’s a lot of it out there. Always has been and, we’d hazard a guess, always will be. It’s one of those places where the law of supply and demand reigns supreme: As long as there are people eager to gamble, there will be others stepping up to accommodate them. It might not be anything on the scale of the operation just shut down in Robeson County, and it may be as insignificant as a couple of gambling machines in the back of a neighborhood convenience store. It may even be legal — like the state lottery or a church bingo game.
There are several problems with this state’s approach to gambling in all its forms. For one, enforcement is at best uneven. Even within counties, some gaming operations run on for years while others are shut down quickly. In places like Cumberland County, the sheriff’s office springs quickly to raid even the smallest internet sweepstakes operations, while in other counties, law enforcement ignores them. And the big gaming operators are quick to make tweaks in their games as soon as the law is changed to ban what they’re doing. It’s a lot like “designer” drugs, where the addition or subtraction of one molecule can make a drug legal as soon as it’s banned.
State lawmakers would make things a lot easier if they could develop a universal law that made gambling in all its forms illegal. But then, they would also be flying in the face of many constituents, because the truth is, a lot of people like to gamble and don’t appreciate bluenose lawmakers who are trying to take away their pleasure.
It’s long past time for a rational public discussion of gambling by our state’s elected leaders. It’s clear that what we’re doing now isn’t working. But it’s equally clear that casinos operated by groups that claim exemption from U.S. and state law will never be acceptable either.