Gambling ‘epidemic?’ This NC city has more arcades than it does McDonald’s.

There’s a gambling “epidemic” in Sen. Andy Wells’ hometown, he says, that’s been virtually untouched by the state’s highest authorities.

“There’s just been no enforcement,” the Republican said. “They go where the people don’t have a lot of money. They’re preying on the weakest among us.”

He’s talking about the “fish game” — the latest video arcade craze that’s enticed people across North Carolina to part with hundreds of dollars at a time, hoping they’ll win big.

In Hickory — where Wells is from — there are 27 arcades.

N.C. Sen. Andy Wells

That’s more fish games than the city of 40,000 people has in pharmacies and McDonald’s — combined.

There was gunfire at one of those arcade locations overnight Friday after two people stormed inside and robbed the business, according to Hickory Police. One robber had a handgun, the other had a rifle, police said.

An armed security guard working for the arcade fired a gun several times but missed as the two suspects made off with an unknown amount of cash.

Hickory’s police chief says his officers have been “looking into” fish game arcades but haven’t made any gambling arrests. Cash payouts from the fish game raise questions of whether the game constitutes illegal gambling.

Fish games are similar to a target-shooting challenge.

Players pay for game ammunition and try to hit fish. A kill shot wins points, redeemable for cash.

In many of North Carolina’s small towns and big cities, it’s the closest thing to a neighborhood mini-casino.

Police departments that have tried to shut down the arcades in North Carolina have faced lawsuits and temporary restraining orders — upping the ante on law enforcement officers to have solid cases based on a machine’s inner workings.

Garish aquatic creatures swim across a 55-inch TV screen embedded in the six-foot game table. If you shoot and kill one — sometimes a whale, a sea dragon or monster crab — you win points. Points are redeemable for cash or more credits to keep playing.

Hickory Police Chief Thurman Whisnant says for authorities to be more effective, state legislators need to write clearer gambling laws and eliminate loopholes.

The most well-known carve-out in North Carolina’s otherwise strict anti-gambling law is one that allows gambling if the game is based on “skill” — not just luck or chance.

The N.C. Attorney General’s Office told the Observer this week it is “very concerned” about the fish games and has been giving advice to local police on how to enforce state gambling laws.

Meanwhile, Whisnant and other police chiefs across the state have taken their concerns to Wells.

Wells co-wrote a legislative bill that, if signed into law, would increase penalties for those found guilty of operating illegal gambling machines in North Carolina. Instead of a misdemeanor, the bill proposes a felony charge on a first arrest for anyone found operating four or more gambling machines.

The bill, introduced last year, passed with bipartisan support in the N.C. Senate but has twice been delayed or denied a vote in the House.

The legislative hold-up and intense lobbying from the gaming industry has been frustrating, Wells said.

The N.C. Sheriff’s Association and the N.C. Family Policy Council, a conservative group, support tougher gambling laws. The Policy Council’s director has called the arcades “gambling warehouses” and “dens of poverty, desperation, crime, and gang activity.”

Legal confusion statewide

But fish game operators contend they run legitimate businesses and obey gambling laws.

Fish games are legal, operators say, because winning depend on a player’s skill.

In most places in North Carolina, the fish games operate openly 24/7, without penalty and have full parking lots. In Charlotte, several customers and arcade managers told the Observer the business are like “social clubs” for people who play.

A Charlotte Observer investigation earlier this month uncovered widespread confusion over the legality of fish games and inconsistent law enforcement statewide of gambling laws.

That could be cleared up, Wells says, if the Attorney General’s Office of North Carolina examines the issue and sends a letter to local district attorneys on whether fish games are illegal. If the games are illegal, he says, state leaders and law enforcement need a plan to shut them down.

“This isn’t just a Hickory or Charlotte problem — it’s everywhere,” Wells said.

Charlotte has one of the highest concentrations of arcades in the state. Authorities say they know of about 40 locations that have been open for several months. But the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department estimates there could be twice that number operating in new locations throughout the city.

How many are there total in North Carolina?

No one knows.

“It’s kinda like counting the mushrooms in the rain. By the time you count ‘em 10 percent more have come up,” Wells said.

The Observer has asked the Attorney General’s Office whether it thinks fish games are legal but it would not say. Spokesperson Laura Brewer said this week the AG’s office would “support legislative efforts to provide clarity around this issue, should that be necessary.”

The State Bureau of Investigation has a special unit dedicated to enforcing North Carolina’s alcohol laws and gambling restrictions. The SBI told the Observer this week its agents have plans to look into fish game arcades but that primary enforcement, for now, depends on local police agencies.

Douglas: 704-358-5078; @ADouglasNews