Lawyers for Harvey Lembo, a tenant in a Rockland subsidized housing complex who is facing eviction after he shot an intruder, argued in a hearing Tuesday that their client is a vulnerable person confined to a wheelchair whose home was burglarized multiple times in recent years. He felt he was a target for criminals, bought a gun to protect himself, and when he shot Christopher Wildhaber in August 2015, he did so in self-defense.

The case has garnered interest from the National Rifle Association, which sent an attorney to assist Lembo’s lawyer, and in the Maine legislature, which approved a bill that supporters portrayed 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.

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.

Lembo’s apartment complex, Park Place Associates, told him he had to comply with house rules that forbid renters from possessing guns, or face eviction. The management company, Stanford Management LLC, provides subsidized housing in Maine and Western Pennsylvania, and has a set of house rules separate from the lease agreement that stipulates renters are not to possess guns.

Lembo is a retired lobsterman and former volunteer police officer who interrupted a robbery by an intruder who tried to take Lembo’s prescription medications. Wildhaber was shot in the shoulder, and remains in custody at the Knox County Jail. He is indicted on several charges in connection with the burglary.

In November, contending the policy against gun possession violates his constitutional rights, Lembo sued Park Place Associates and Stanford Management LLC, seeking a permanent injunction prohibiting the complex from evicting him on the grounds that he owns a firearm.

James Bowie, attorney for Stanford Management, filed a motion to dismiss the case in December, and argued on Tuesday that the case is not actionable under the Maine Civil Rights Act, because there was no threat of physical force or violence. The management company only sent a letter sent to Lembo saying he must comply with house rules or go to court, which was not a threat of physical force or violence, Bowie said. He argued that the letter and the prospect of resolving the issue in court are how responsible landlords operate.

During the hearing, the judge presiding over the case, Justice William Stokes, said that he had been a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns for several years, adding that that fact would have no bearing on his decision whether to dismiss Lembo’s civil case. Stokes is set to rule on the motion to dismiss the case in the coming weeks.

Bowie argued that an eviction would be constitutional because there would be a judicial determination. He added that possessing a firearm is not an unfettered right, and even with new legislation passed this session that bars subsidized housing from banning firearms, the statute has restrictions. For instance, it does not apply in a complex with fewer than four units, if it is owner-occupied, and guns are not allowed in common areas.

Portland attorney William Harwood, a representative of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, asked Stokes to consider the rights of other tenants. “Others’ interests are affected,” he said.

The relief sought by Lembo will be taken care of in July, when the law comes into effect, Harwood said, but he added that there is an epidemic of gun violence, and even if somebody is protecting themselves in their home, the bottom line is, more guns equates to more violence. Harwood did acknowledge Lembo is a sympathetic character.

There is no dispute that Lembo acted in self-defense, and there is no dispute he is allowed under the Constitution to protect himself in his home, Washington, D.C., attorney Howard Nielson Jr. said at the hearing. He contended there was an implicit threat of force in the eviction warning, because if Lembo could not or would not leave, he could be physically forced from his home, constituting an illegal eviction and trespass.

Boston-based attorney Patrick Strawbridge, part of Lembo’s defense team, said last week the bill allowing guns in subsidized housing does not have an immediate effect on the civil case.

Stokes asked whether Lembo’s civil case is now technically moot, with the Legislature’s recent action, Nielson said his client is seeking damages, since the management company’s actions have caused Lembo emotional distress. He said Lembo could not be present in court for the hearing because he is so ill.

In court Tuesday, Nielson said he had not heard from Stanford Management that it will comply with the law when it goes into effect in July, and added that Lembo has no recollection of agreeing to the house rules. Lembo has lived in the apartment since 2009, and it is unclear whether the rule was in effect then.

LD 1572, an act allowing firearms in subsidized housing, was sponsored by Republican Sen. Andre Cushing of Hampden and signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage April 5. The bill mandates that a rental agreement for a subsidized apartment may not contain a provision or impose a rule that requires a person not to own or possess a firearm. A landlord may impose reasonable restrictions related to the use or possession of a gun in common areas. A landlord is not liable in civil action for personal injury, death, property damage or other damages resulting from or arising out of an occurrence involving a firearm or ammunition, except in cases of reckless or gross negligence, the bill states.

Lembo, from his own description, suffers from poor health. He said in previous court filings that the robberies made him afraid, and that he felt like a target. He purchased a gun the day before the shooting to protect himself because his physical disabilities make it difficult to deter criminals, the suit says.

Strawbridge said Lembo’s case received a lot of publicity and that he was contacted by lawyers in Washington, D.C., to work on the case as a local attorney. When asked whether he is affiliated with the National Rifle Association, Strawbridge said Lembo is his client, but added he is appreciative of the NRA’s support of the case. Strawbridge said that Thompson, who is co-counsel on the case, has worked for the NRA before.

Courier Gazette reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at [email protected]