Gun owners’ rights groups urged lawmakers Wednesday to support a bill inspired by the case of a disabled Rockland man who was told he had to give up his gun to continue living in subsidized housing.
Supporters portrayed the bill as a Second Amendment issue intended to prevent landlords who receive public funding, such as for Section 8 housing, from violating their tenants’ rights to own a gun. But critics argued that the legislation could violate the rights of private property owners and discourage more landlords from participating in programs for low-income renters.
“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 trump those of non-gun owners,” said Bill Harwood of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition in testimony to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
The debate stems from an incident last September in which a 67-year-old disabled retiree, Harvey Lembo, shot an intruder who tried to break into his Rockland apartment. Lembo had purchased the handgun one day earlier, after several break-ins at his apartment.
Lembo was not charged with any crimes because he was acting in self defense. But the owner of his subsidized apartment complex, Stanford Management LLC, threatened to evict him because his lease prohibited firearms. Lembo countered with a lawsuit against Stanford Management, charging that forcing him to give up his gun in order to keep his apartment violated his constitutional rights. The suit is still pending.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, would prohibit private landlords who accept housing subsidies from including restrictions on tenants’ ability to use, possess or transport a firearm or ammunition. A 1995 Maine Supreme Court ruling already prohibits public housing complexes, such as those run by the Portland Housing Authority, from banning firearms.
The National Rifle Association has taken an active interest in the issue, sending an attorney to assist Lembo’s lawyer and lobbying its members to support the bill.
“There are a lot of Harveys out there, whether it be a school teacher living on limited income or whatever the case may be,” John Hohenwarter, an NRA lobbyist, told the committee. “We cannot and should not decide who can practice their constitutional rights according to what tax bracket they are in or their zip code.”
Representatives for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and Gun Owners of Maine also sought to frame the bill as a constitutional issue
“The day when our government allows individuals to deny constitutional rights to other citizens is the day we no longer live by the rule of law,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. “Imagine the public outcry if this landlord had denied this tenant the right to vote, to right to choose his religion or denied him the right to free speech.”
A representative for the Maine Real Estate Managers Association, which represents companies that manage more than 20,000 rental units in the state, testified neither for nor against the bill. The vast majority of property owners involved in the group allow firearms in their rental units, Rosemary Moeykens said, so the bill should be a non-issue for most members.
However, Moeykens asked the committee and the sponsor to amend the bill to make it clear that landlords can impose “reasonable rules” on the safe usage and storage of guns and ammunition in order to protect other tenants.
The only organization to testify against the bill, L.D. 1572, was the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, which is a prominent gun control group in the state. Harwood, who is a member of the coalition’s board of directors, said tenants routinely give up the right to conduct religious services, political campaigns or other activities when they move into a privately owned apartment.
But Michael Coleman, a landlord from Old Orchard Beach, said the state should not allow landlords to agree to accept public subsidies to essentially discriminate against those who want to defend themselves. Coleman said he and his wife encourage gun ownership among tenants who are legally entitled to possess a firearm.
“It is a basic human right trumping a narrowly defined private property right,” Coleman said. “As a landlord, I give up rights to my property in exchange for rent and I do so willingly because I want the rent.”