Americans have the constitutional right to protect themselves and their property. That is a key tenet of freedom in the United States, and we are fortunate that here in Maine we have a proud tradition of upholding Second Amendment rights. Some of the strongest protections of these rights are in Maine’s Constitution. However, last year an unfortunate situation in Rockland brought to light that there is a hole in our laws that needs to be fixed.
It involves the story of Harvey Lembo, a Rockland subsidized housing resident and former police constable who was robbed several times for his prescription medication. So he did what many of us would do; he bought a gun to protect himself. Wheelchair-bound, Lembo heard a burglar one night. So he confronted the criminal, made him sit on a coffee table, called 911, and when the intruder lunged off the table, Harvey shot him in the shoulder. The burglar, a 45-year-old male, was finally found and arrested, only after putting up a struggle with police. Self-defense, open and shut case, right? Maybe so, but Harvey’s problems didn’t end with him proving he would and could defend himself.
Instead, he was instructed to get rid of his gun. A man who is in a wheelchair and has been robbed multiple times was told to get rid of his one defense because his landlord did not want him to have the gun. It seems very clear in this case that Harvey was not a danger to anyone because of his firearm. Instead, without his own means of defense, he would have been in danger from burglars as he had in the past.
Presumably, people live in public housing because they don’t have other options. It is potentially their housing of last resort. Unlike folks who live in private apartments, they have limited choices and cannot search for a lease that does not prevent them from owning a gun. Landlords, however, have a choice — in this case whether or not to accept taxpayer money or to operate solely as a private landlord.
This issue already has been ruled on by the Maine Supreme Court in a 1995 case of Doe vs. the Portland Housing Authority. Now it is time to have the discussion about those who offer apartments and accept subsidized rent. That is why I have proposed LD 1572, “An Act to Ensure Nondiscrimination Against Gun Owners in Public Housing.” It does not affect private landlords who do not receive taxpayer funds for rent payments, as I believe that would impede their rights as property owners. Instead, its focus is to help people such as Harvey — those who don’t have choices in their housing and who must be able to protect themselves.
While self-defense is my primary concern with this legislation, it should be noted that by not allowing guns landlords are also, in essence, restricting their tenants from hunting. If you cannot own a firearm through no fault of your own other than your landlord’s preference, it’s pretty difficult to hunt. Why should people who live in subsidized housing have this right taken away from them, as well? A hunter who is looking at private-sector apartments can look for one that does not prohibit firearms, but someone looking for public housing likely does not have that luxury. Many Mainers hunt to help supplement their groceries throughout the year. Having that opportunity taken away because of your limited housing choices is not the way Maine should be.
Tenants should certainly have to abide by a certain standard of living and a set of rules, whether they are in public or private housing. However, rules about pets, smoking and cleanliness are very different than prohibitive standards that violate constitutional rights. We have made progress in Maine in upholding the Second Amendment. Passage of this legislation would continue moving us in the right direction.
I am hopeful my colleagues in the Legislature will recognize the need for Mainers to be able to protect themselves. If you agree, let them know. It is in the best interest of all Mainers for “Harvey’s Law” to be adopted and for our Second Amendment rights to be upheld.
Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Newport, is the assistant Senate majority leader. He represents Senate District 10.