AUGUSTA — Lawmakers on Tuesday continued their debate over the best way to balance the rights of landlords with those of tenants who are receiving public housing subsidies and want to keep firearms.

A new proposal offered by Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, would allow landlords who own and live in multiunit properties with four apartments or fewer to continue to ban guns, even if they accept federal Section 8 rent subsidies or vouchers.

The measure would allow those in public housing run by local or state housing authorities or those who live in large privately owned rental properties that accept rental subsidies to have firearms in their dwellings.

A previous incarnation of the bill was voted down 5-8 by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, partly out of concern property owners would have to sacrifice their rights to protect the 2nd Amendment rights of their Section 8 tenants.

On Wednesday, the committee, which moved to reconsider the bill, split 4-4 on the changes to the measure, and with five committee members absent, the final recommendation to the Legislature will not be known until later in the day Thursday, after those absent have a chance to cast their votes.

Cushing said Tuesday that he was asking to make some changes to his original proposal to satisfy the concerns of lawmakers who were worried property owners were having to sacrifice too much. He also said the changes would make clear that those who are receiving public housing benefits do not have to sacrifice their right to own firearms for personal protection or recreation.

“The objective in amending this was to clarify this for public housing and get a better definition and in the course of that we recognized there were some members who expressed concern about the property rights issues of the owner,” Cushing said.

He first brought the bill after he learned of the plight of a disabled Rockland man who shot an alleged intruder in his publicly subsidized apartment last August.

The bill, LD 1572, “An Act to Ensure Nondiscrimination Against Gun Owners in Public Housing,” 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. 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.

Cushing, himself a landlord, said Tuesday that he didn’t know how many other people were in Lembo’s situation but had heard from at least one other person who was concerned they weren’t not being allowed to protect themselves in public housing.

Cushing’s proposed law change would have no bearing on private rental properties that do not accept state or federal vouchers or funds to provide housing for low-income residents.

“The exception that is significant to me is when you have individuals who are being subsidized through our tax dollars whose rights are being restricted or diminished because they are in an economic condition that obligates them to seek a limited pool of housing,” Cushing said. 

But some lawmakers who oppose the change voiced concern that more landlords would simply stop providing Section 8 housing if the state continued to make rules for them and their properties.

“It feels to me very much like big government coming in and putting its fist down on landlords and property owners,” said Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, the House chairwoman of the committee. Fowle, who voted against the measure, also asked if there was any information about the scope of the problem. She suggested that what might be a perfectly good policy for an apartment building complex in a rural part of the state might not be a good policy for the state’s bigger cities.

She also questioned what “unintended consequences” the change might have.

Peter Merrill, the administrative director of the Maine State Housing Authority, which has oversight for public housing projects and Section 8 voucher programs, said there were as many as 20,000 people on waiting lists for subsidized housing in Maine.  

While Merrill’s agency didn’t take a position either for or against the change, he said there was concern that more landlords would pull away from the program, which could exacerbate housing shortages for low-income Mainers.

“We have people living in cars, we have people who are homeless, we have people who are sleeping on other people’s couches and this bill to me is doing something that may shut down more of those housings,” Fowle said. 

Fowle also said there were likely many Section 8 landlords in Maine who didn’t ban guns in their rentals and lawmakers haven’t heard from many people complaining about the issue highlighted by Lembo’s situation.

“We’ve had one individual come forward, but since when have we made laws for one person?” Rep. Justin Chenette, D–Saco, asked.

But other lawmakers said the principle matters to them and finding a solution to balance both the rights of property owners and tenants was important.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Rep. Karen Gerrish, R-Lebanon, said. “We don’t know of a problem until something happens and that’s why it’s here today.”

Others noted that landlords were not raising an enormous alarm about the proposed change.

“If there was such a huge outcry of worry, I have yet to see one of them come to this committee and express any concern,” Rep. Timothy Theriault, R-China, said. “We have had someone who had their rights taken away who expressed their concerns, but as far as someone from the housing (rental industry) we have not had that.”

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