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Lawmakers to Decide Whether Landlords Taking Subsidies Can Ban Guns

MPBN file photo
Gun supporters rally in Augusta in Feb. 2013.

The case of a Rockland lobsterman who used a handgun to fend off an intruder last year has triggered legislation to safeguard tenants’ rights.

That’s because Harvey Lembo was threatened with eviction by his landlord after the incident.

Backed by the National Rifle Association and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, the bill would prohibit prevent private property owners who receive public housing subsidies from banning gun ownership by tenants.

Republican Sen. Andre Cushing says when a property management firm threatened Lembo with eviction unless he gave up his handgun, the company went too far. Cushing says Lembo and others who rent from private property owners who accept public housing subsidies deserve the same rights as all Mainers, and that’s why he has sponsored a bill to protect their rights.

“When one of those rights is surrendered — being the ability to protect themselves — and the management company through their best efforts still can’t assure that that house is fully protected, an individual should have the option — not the obligation or the requirement but the option — to protect themselves,” he says.

Cushing’s bill draws heavily on a 1995 Maine Supreme Court ruling in a civil case against the Portland Housing Authority, which concluded that the Authority could not make policies controlling which tenants could or could not own guns based on the fact that the city housing group lacked legal standing.

Cushing told members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that the same principle should apply to certain private property managers.

“The intent of LD 1572 is to extend that ruling to private management companies who accept taxpayer subsidy,” he says. “In essence what that deals with is whether a local authority has the ability or the right to preempt state law when it comes to issues related to firearms.”

Lembo has since brought a lawsuit against his landlord, a legal battle that has been supported by the National Rifle Association and local groups like the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

“We are perplexed by the justification used by the landlord and owner of the affordable housing facility in Rockland when after five robberies, his tenant Mr. Lembo, finally took it upon himself to make a courageous stand and buy a gun to defend himself,” says SAM’s executive director, David Trahan. “When he does stop a home invasion, the landlord turns around and tries to deny him that right. The day when our government allows individuals to deny constitutional rights to other citizens is the day when we no longer live by the rule of law.”

“Rather than trying to solve a real problem, this bill looks more like a request that the Legislature make a statement that gun owners’ rights should trump those of non-gun owners,” says Bill Harwood of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, which opposes the measure.

Harwood says lawmakers should be taking steps to reduce gun violence, not promote it. He says no court has ever ruled that all tenants have the right to keep firearms in their apartments where the tenant has voluntarily entered into a lease with a no-gun clause.

And Harwood says there are plenty of other examples of constitutional rights that could be similarly compromised.

“Tenants cannot conduct religious services in their apartments despite their First Amendment freedom of religion, tenants cannot conduct political campaigns within their apartments despite their First Amendment freedom of expression, freedom of speech,” Harwood says. “It has long been recognized that by entering into a lease, tenants give up some of their constitutional rights.”

Lawmakers on the panel agreed to consider an amendment to the bill that would exempt state academies and universities from the legislation at a future committee meeting.