AUGUSTA, Maine — The sponsor of a bill that would guarantee the right to bear arms for public housing tenants said his bill needs adjustments but that the concept should find bipartisan support as it progresses through the Legislature.

Republican Sen. Andre Cushing of Hampden proposed LD 1572 in response to an August 2015 incident in which a resident of federally subsidized housing in Rockland shot an alleged intruder who had broken into his apartment. Harvey Lembo, 67, was subsequently told by his landlord that he was barred from having a gun in his apartment.

Cushing said his bill would not apply to private landlord-tenant relationships, only publicly subsidized agreements.

“When you’re in a subsidized situation, which is basically your housing of last resort, you shouldn’t see your rights as a citizen diminished because of your financial situation,” said Cushing following Wednesday’s hearing before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee. “Many people respect that it is a gun issue, but more fundamentally a rights issue. It’s a security issue for people who may be in places where they would be considered more vulnerable.”

Cushing said that among the changes his bill needs is clarifying language to ensure that it doesn’t apply to public colleges or universities with subsidized students.

The bill received a mixed reception in public testimony Wednesday.

Todd Tolhurst, president of the nonprofit Gun Owners of Maine Inc., testified for the bill on the grounds that limiting a public housing tenant’s right to own guns is as egregious as barring their right to vote or freedom of speech would be.

“Criminals brazen enough to enter an occupied residence to commit crimes are the most dangerous sort and those who depend upon publicly financed housing are among the most vulnerable of our citizens,” Tolhurst said.

Testifying against the bill, Bill Harwood of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition said Cushing’s bill “looks more like a request that the Legislature make a statement that gun owners’ rights should trump those of non-gun owners.”

Harwood said there is no legal precedent for an apartment tenant’s right to have a gun after he or she has signed a lease with a “no gun” clause.”

“This is not a radical conclusion,” said Harwood. “Tenants routinely give up certain rights when they move into an apartment building. … If landlords want to prohibit guns and if there are enough tenants who agree with that policy, landlords should be free to adopt a no-gun policy. Conversely, if landlords want to allow guns and if there are enough tenants who agree with that policy, landlords should be free to allow guns.”

Harwood said the private market can “sort out” the issue, allowing tenants to decide for themselves whether they want to live in a gun-free rental unit or not.

Cushing said he understands that voting in favor of the bill would be a struggle for some lawmakers.

“I think we can craft a policy that protects the rights of some of these folks who are vulnerable while not getting too far afield into forcing landlords to do things they’re uncomfortable with,” said Cushing.

The Criminal Justice Committee will be making a recommendation on the bill in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, a lawsuit on Lembo’s behalf is pending in Knox County Unified Court.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.