AUGUSTA – A legislative committee voted Wednesday to reject a bill that aims to ensure Mainers living in subsidized housing can keep guns in their residences.

The legislation, L.D. 1572, was introduced after a Rockland man living with a disability shot a burglar but was later told by the owners of the subsidized housing complex that he had to give up his gun in order to continue living in his apartment. The man, Harvey Lembo, who had purchased the gun after several break-ins, countered with a lawsuit alleging the property owner was violating his Second Amendment rights.

A 1995 Maine Supreme Court ruling already prohibits public housing complexes, such as those run by the Portland Housing Authority, from banning firearms. The bill now pending in the Legislature would have extended that policy to private property owners who receive public money to subsidize low-income housing, such as federal Section 8 vouchers.

But while the legislation was touted by supporters as a protection of Mainers’ Second Amendment rights, critics said it could infringe upon the rights of building owners to manage their property as they deem fit.

“It is a simple matter to me of do landlords – private landlords – have the right to set the rules?” said Rep. James Davitt, D-Hampden. “One incident does not form the basis for a law that could have consequences far beyond what we can comprehend to date.”

The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 8-4 on Wednesday to reject the bill following lengthy discussion among members and the bill sponsor, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden.

Cushing argued that Mainers living in subsidized housing often do not have the range of housing options available to people with higher incomes, who can choose to look elsewhere if a landlord prohibits firearms. By prohibiting tenants from possessing guns, Cushing continued, landlords could actually make subsidized units “a magnet” for criminals.

“Those who are limited by economics or other facts of their life should not be less of a citizen,” Cushing said.

Although he was not in attendance at either the public hearing or work session, Harvey Lembo was mentioned frequently by Cushing and other supporters of the bill.

Last September, the retired fisherman shot an intruder who fled after he caught the man going through his prescription medications. Lembo’s apartment had been broken into five times in six years, according to court documents, so he purchased the gun a day before the last break-in to defend himself.

While he was not charged with any crimes because he was acting in self defense, Lembo’s landlord threatened to evict him because firearms and ammunition were prohibited under the rules of the apartment complex. Lembo’s lawsuit is still pending against the property owner and management company, Park Place Associates and Stanford Management LLC.

The National Rifle Association has taken a keen interest in Lembo’s case and even lobbied its members to support Cushing’s bill. With few other gun-related issues before the Legislature during an election-year session, the NRA is likely to pay close attention to how lawmakers vote on L.D. 1584.

Speaking before the committee vote, bill supporter Rep. Karen Gerrish, R-Lebanon, said she saw the gun ownership issue in the same vein of protecting tenants’ constitutional rights as the freedoms of speech or religion.

But Rep. Lori Fowle, a Vassalboro Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said she would need more information about how widespread a problem it was before she could support the bill.

“I haven’t heard anything other than just one case, and do we make laws based on one case?” Fowle said.

The bill now heads to the full Legislature, where it will likely spark additional debate.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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