A Rockland man’s civil rights were not violated when the landlord of his subsidized apartment told him to give up his gun or face eviction after he shot an intruder, a Knox County judge ruled this week.

Harvey Lembo, a 68-year-old retired and disabled lobsterman living in Rockland, shot Christopher Wildhaber after midnight Sept. 1. Lembo had bought the pistol less than 24 hours earlier after several break-ins at his apartment.

Lembo’s suit, filed in November 2015, claimed that his landlord’s threat to evict him through the courts violated his Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, and violated the Maine Civil Rights Act. Lembo, who uses a wheelchair, had argued that he needed the gun to protect himself after his home was burglarized multiple times in recent years.

But Justice William Stokes found that Lembo’s claims failed to meet the basic standard that would give him grounds for the case to move forward.

“We felt the law with regard to how you apply the civil rights act was clear and that Justice Stokes decided the case appropriately,” said Jim Bowie, attorney for Stanford Management LLC, one of the two companies named as defendants. Stanford Management LLC provides subsidized housing in Maine and western Pennsylvania and has a set of house rules separate from the lease agreement that stipulates renters are not to possess guns.

Patrick Strawbridge, a Boston-based lawyer who is one of the attorneys representing Lembo, said he and his client have not decided whether to appeal the ruling.

“We are studying the decision, and have not yet made any decisions about next steps,” Strawbridge said in a written statement. “We do have the right to appeal, and we will consider all of our options as we go forward. Further comment would be inappropriate at this time.”

BROAD INTEREST IN GUN-RIGHTS CASE

The case quickly became a flash point for gun-rights advocates, who held up Lembo’s actions as evidence that firearms are useful for lawful personal protection. The case also became the basis for a state law that goes into effect in July that places new limits on what landlords may regulate when it comes to firearm possession in their rented units.

Scrutiny and interest in the case intensified when Lembo’s landlords told him to give up the gun or face eviction, citing the house rules he agreed to follow when he signed his lease in 2009.

Lembo, a former volunteer police officer, interrupted the robbery by Wildhaber, who allegedly tried to take Lembo’s prescription medications. Wildhaber was shot in the shoulder.

Lembo’s legal team included Washington, D.C., attorneys David Thompson and Howard Nielson Jr., who have represented the National Rifle Association. They argued that threatening to take Lembo to court if he did not give up his gun equated to the use of physical force, a required element under the Maine law to prove a violation of someone’s civil rights.

Lembo’s attorneys argued that eviction is by nature a forcible act, and therefore the threat to obtain court permission to evict him constituted the threat of force.

NO THREAT OF PHYSICAL FORCE

Indeed, in previous cases where landlords have been found at fault by the courts, the use of physical force had meant in some cases breaking into a tenant’s unit without permission, removing their belongings and denying further access to the premises.

In this case, however, the landlord threatened only to use the legal eviction process and pursue Lembo’s removal via court order.

“The court agrees that where a landlord illegally enters a tenant’s apartment and forcibly evicts the tenant without a court order, a trespass may be found,” Stokes wrote. “The threat of legal process, however, by which a tenant may be evicted is not a threat of physical force, violence, trespass or property damage within the contemplation of the Maine Civil Rights Act.”

Stokes added, “While a threat of unlawful eviction may be a threat of trespass, a notice that a landlord intends to legally enforce a lease provision by seeking eviction through a court action is not a threat of physical force or violence, property damage or trespass.”

The case drew even more attention when, during oral arguments in April, Stokes, a former prosecutor and mayor of Augusta, disclosed he was once a member of a gun control group, Mayors Against Illegal Handguns, and that he would entertain motions for his recusal if attorneys believed his past affiliation was a conflict. However, both sides filed papers indicating that they did not believe recusal was necessary, and Stokes decided the case as usual.

NEW LAW LIMITS GUN RESTRICTIONS

Lembo’s situation led to a legislative victory in Maine for gun rights advocates.

The NRA and its lobbyists successfully advocated for a new law that prohibits private landlords who accept housing subsidies from including restrictions on tenants’ ability to use, possess or transport a firearm or ammunition. It goes into effect in July.

A 1995 Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruling already prohibits public housing complexes, such as those run by the Portland Housing Authority, from banning firearms. The NRA led that effort as well.

The new law allows landlords to impose “reasonable restrictions” related to the possession, use or transport of a firearm within common areas “as long as those restrictions do not circumvent the use or possession of a firearm in the tenant’s rental unit.”