The Maine Legislature has given all but final approval to a bill that would prohibit private landlords who accept public housing vouchers from banning gun ownership by their tenants.
The measure was backed by the National Rifle Association, which took up the case of a disabled Rockland veteran who faced eviction after he shot an intruder who broke into his home last year.
Private landlords who accept federal funds under the Section 8 housing voucher program say banning guns from the premises makes sense — it keeps their tenants safer. But some tenants disagree, and they say such policies violate their 2nd Amendment rights.
“Property owners have a right to disallow things such as pets, smoking and such but why and how can they disallow our constitutional right to bear arms?” said Rep. Karen Gerrish, a Republican from Lebanon.
Gerrish’s question was answered on the floor of the Maine House when lawmakers voted 92-54 in favor of gun owners, following a similar vote last week in the Senate.
Nearly a third of the House members sided with the position that’s being taken by lawyers for the NRA and 67-year-old Harvey Lembo, a wheelchair-bound Rockland resident who last year shot and wounded an intruder who had broken into his apartment in search of painkilling medications.
Lembo, who lives in subsidized housing, was told by his landlord that he had to give up his guns or get out. The tenant responded with a lawsuit that’s pending in Superior Court.
Rep. Mary Anne Kinney, a Knox Republican, said that as a landlord she would never presume to prohibit gun ownership by her tenants.
“We have tenants who receive Section 8 and other subsidies, we respect our tenants’ privacy in their home,” Kinney said. “We do not discriminate against those tenants’ 2nd Amendment rights — nor should anyone else.”
Lawmakers who support the bill say it’s a matter of fairness, that just because a person rents an apartment instead of owning a home, he or she should not have to surrender their constitutional rights.
Rep. David Sawicki, an Auburn Republican, said that as a landlord he would not be able to live with himself if something happened to one of his tenants because of a ban on gun possession.
“I would feel horrible if I awoke one day and found out that a long-term tenant of mine who had rented from me for five, six or seven years and has kids — if something should have happened to them because somebody broke into their apartment and my lease disallowed them from owning a firearm,” Sawicki said.
But other lawmakers sided with the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which voted 8-4 against the bill after property owners told the panel that the measure infringed on their rights and potentially endangered their tenants.
In addition, the shadow of the NRA loomed large over the legislative discussion for Rep. Justin Chenette, a Saco Democrat, during arguments against the measure.
“I’m not going to be intimidated by a high-paid slick lobbyist from Virginia,” Chenette said. “I don’t take talking points or cues from NRA on property rights and I urge us to support the pending motion.”
Other lawmakers who opposed the bill said they were just uncomfortable with the Legislature’s direction on the issue. Rep. Lori Fowle, the Democratic House chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, said she didn’t want to place the state in a position where it was dictating what landlords can do.
“And I find it hard to believe that at a time when we talk about local control that we’re going to take big government and go into private property and say what you can and cannot have in your lease agreement,” Fowle said.
The bill awaits final enactment votes in both houses.