AUGUSTA, Maine — The plight of a disabled Rockland man who shot an alleged intruder in his apartment last August has prompted legislation that would prohibit gun bans in publicly subsidized housing.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, said a bill he is sponsoring, LD 1572, An Act to Ensure Nondiscrimination Against Gun Owners in Public Housing, will at least start a conversation in the Legislature about the conflict between the rights of private property owners and those of tenants.
Cushing’s bill is a response to an incident involving Harvey Lembo, who is now suing the owner and property management company of his Section 8 apartment.
Lembo, who uses a wheelchair, shot an alleged intruder in his home. He said he was defending himself after being robbed of his prescription medicines several times previously. But after the shooting, Lembo’s landlord informed him tenants are prohibited from having firearms in the apartment building he has lived in since 1991.
“My feeling is when you have individuals who are in subsidized housing, in essence what you are looking at is housing of last resort for some people,” Cushing said. “So they have a different position than a private-sector tenant who has discretion to perhaps move to an alternate location if their landlord doesn’t allow smoking, pets, guns, parties — you know.”
Cushing said landlords who accept public money for programs — such as the federally funded Section 8 voucher program — should not be allowed to squelch an individual’s constitutional rights.
“This is an area where the landlord is receiving public monies to subsidize the rolls of their tenants and they are denying that person the right to have ownership either for hunting or personal protection,” Cushing said.
According to reports in the Bangor Daily News, Lembo said he bought the gun about 12 hours before he was the victim of another burglary.
Cushing said Lembo had been robbed six times previously.
Cushing acknowledged too many rules for subsidized housing programs may cause some landlords to stop offering Section 8 housing to tenants. He said that was among the concerns he will consider as his legislation moves forward.
“It’s a factor that we’ve got to weigh in the discussion, but we have not had a bill for some time where we actually discuss the rights related to people who have limited options,” Cushing said. “I’m not looking to go to war with landlords or even public housing properties, but we need to have a discussion.”
Lembo used a 7 mm Russian-made revolver to shoot 45-year-old Christopher Wildhaber of Rockland, who Lembo said had broken into his home to steal his medications. Wildhaber was shot in the shoulder and fled the residence before being apprehended by Rockland police in nearby woods.
Wildhaber, who was charged with burglary, theft of medication, attempted theft and three counts of refusing to submit to arrest, pleaded innocent to the charges in Knox County Unified Court in January.
His case is still pending, as is Lembo’s civil suit against Park Place Associates of Rockland, the owner of his apartment, and its management company. Park Place Associates has asked the court to dismiss the suit.
Cushing said there’s precedent in Maine law from a 1990s court decision involving the Portland Housing Authority that preserved the rights of those in subsidized housing to possess firearms — if they were not otherwise prohibited from possessing firearms under state and federal law.
Other lawmakers backing Cushing’s bill include Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn.
Brakey, who ushered through legislation in 2015 that allows adults in Maine to carry concealed handguns without a permit, said the legislation will be a balancing act between property rights and gun rights.
“I think when you have the case that you had [with Lembo] — an older gentleman who is simply defending himself, completely within his rights — and you have a landlord who receives taxpayer money for this housing situation [who] has voluntarily entered into this situation, and the landlord is denying this individual his constitutional right to defend himself, that’s really troubling and very concerning,” said Brakey.
Brakey said if landlords are not taking subsidies from the government, they should be allowed to prohibit guns on their properties if they choose to do so.
Brakey said Wednesday he would also support a change to state law to allow individuals to carry firearms at the State House if they are not otherwise prohibited from having a gun.
Cushing’s bill will be heard at a public hearing of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which holds jurisdiction over most gun laws in Maine, likely in mid-February.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who serves on the committee, declined to say whether he will back the measure.
Gerzofsky did say those who live in publicly subsidized housing are required to abide by certain standards or they risk losing their housing.
“So there are limits, based on conduct,” Gerzofsky said. “But possessing a firearm for self-protection is something this committee will have to be able to talk openly about and figure it out. It’s really important.”
Gerzofsky also said landlords who accept state and federal funds to provide low-income housing also must abide by certain rules and laws, including those that protect tenants’ rights.
Cushing said hearings and debate on the bill will help sort out all of the proposed legislation’s pros and cons.
“I’m certainly worried we have adverse effects [from the bill], but I think it’s an important debate to have just the same,” he said.