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Living In Lembo

Living In Lembo

Photo credit: Damian Strohmeyer

This feature appears in the February ‘16 issue of NRA America’s 1st Freedom, one of the official journals of the National Rifle Association. 

Sixty-seven-year-old Harvey Lembo of Rockland, Maine, is disabled and relies on a motorized wheelchair to get around. His disability, coupled with the stash of prescription drugs that he needs to get through the day, has made him an attractive target for criminals—in six years, he has been robbed six times.  An intruder was going through his pills. When asked what he was doing, the suspect reportedly replied, “I’m here to rob you, just like everybody else.”

When a thief took his pain medications, $1,000 in cash and the key to his safe deposit box, Lembo decided that he had had enough and purchased an antique Russian revolver for home defense. He placed it under his pillow when he went to sleep, never suspecting that he would need it that very night.

Later that evening, Lembo was awakened by a noise in his apartment. Getting out of bed, he reached for his handgun and went to investigate. An intruder was going through his pills. When asked what he was doing, the suspect reportedly replied, “I’m here to rob you, just like everybody else.” 

This time, however, Lembo wasn’t helpless. He pointed the revolver at the suspect and told him to hang tight while he called 911. 

Lembo says that the intruder acted erratically while being held at gunpoint, avoiding eye contact and hiding his face in his hands. “I don’t know what he was on, but he was out of his mind.” 

While the disabled senior citizen tried to relay the necessary information to the 911 dispatcher, the suspect “lurched” at him. Lembo shot him once, and the man fled. Police arrived on the scene soon afterward and followed a trail of blood leading out the door. After a brief search they located the suspect and transported him to a local hospital.

“The 911 call center is 55 feet from this property,” lamented neighbor Alan Savall. “It didn’t help Harvey.” Had Lembo not owned the gun, there is no way he could have stopped the suspect from stealing his medications—or worse.

The incident received some attention in the local media—an uplifting story about a victimized man asserting his freedom to defend himself. But then Standford Management Co., which operates Lembo’s apartment complex, issued a crushing blow to his morale: The gun had to go. It seems that there is a policy against tenants owning firearms—one that Lembo maintains he was never informed of. 

Savall says that the “no-guns” policy is posted on a sign somewhere in the complex, but it is nowhere to be found in the lease. Unfortunately, the presence of the sign doesn’t mean that security is taken seriously in the establishment. 

“There’s no security locks, there’s no lights over any of the doors, no alarm system,” said Lembo. He laughs at the idea that “safety” is the reason behind the no-guns policy, as the property manager claims. Savall added, “After Harvey shot that guy, a week later they came and put surveillance cameras in. Other than that, there’s nothing.” When asked why he doesn’t simply move, he replies, “There is nowhere else.”

Because of the publicity that the incident has received, Lembo says that the earlier robbers—one of whom was caught, but served only 30 days in jail—know that he is now unarmed and helpless. More criminals might have him in their sights now. 

“He’s at their mercy,” says Savall. “They gave them his name and address; they posted it in the paper. They know what medications he’s on, and they know that he’s disabled, and they know that now he doesn’t have any way to defend himself. Might as well put a sign on the door.” 

Lembo agrees. “They ought to put a big sign up at the entrance here: ‘Free pickings! Go take what you want, because everybody’s unarmed’!”

Lembo’s terrible situation has been going on for months now. When asked why he doesn’t simply move, he replies, “There is nowhere else.” The retired lobsterman is dependent on government-subsidized housing; he can’t just pack up and move to another apartment complex down the street. “So I’m an easy target. I’m afraid they’re going to do it again.” 

All is not lost for Lembo, however. Just as he was beginning to resign himself to the need to comply with the property manager’s directive—and almost certainly return to the same life of being a helpless victim—he received a ray of hope. Boston-based attorney Patrick Strawbridge would represent him in a lawsuit against the property management company, filed in Knox County Superior Court. 

“We’re interested in ensuring that people in Mr. Lembo’s position are able to enjoy their full [constitutional] rights, including their right to lawfully possess a firearm in self-defense,” Strawbridge told Guns.com. 

The lawyer contends that the property managers are in violation of the Maine Civil Rights Act, which prohibits interfering with an individual’s constitutional rights. The law is generally considered to apply to government entities, not to private organizations. But since Lembo’s complex is subsidized, the court may decide that the actions of the management company should be held to the same standards as those of a public entity. Readers who remember the fight in Delaware over whether guns could be banned in public-housing facilities—the state’s Supreme Court ruled that they could not—will understand how the presence of government money can curtail an institution’s ability to flout the Second Amendment. Lembo’s situation is much the same as it has been for years, if not worse. He is defenseless, and his recent publicity could even bring about an increase in criminal attention. 

Lembo still faces an uphill battle. Victory in Delaware notwithstanding, University of Maine law professor Dmitry Bam pointed out to the Portland Press Herald that some states continue to ban firearm ownership in public housing. “And at least some of those have been upheld. … I believe it will come down to how strong the justification is for banning guns in the building, and balancing those justifications with the plaintiff’s need for a weapon for self-defense reasons.” Given Lembo’s physical disability and his history as a victim of repeated home invasions, it is hard to imagine how his need for a gun could be much more urgent.

The National Rifle Association has thrown its support behind the lawsuit, hoping not only for relief for this beleaguered retiree but also for a less punishing environment for impoverished people in the state.

“Threatening to evict Mr. Lembo for defending himself clearly violates his constitutional rights,” says John Hohenwarter, NRA-ILA’s Maine state liaison. “Self-defense is a fundamental, God-given right that belongs to every law-abiding American—no matter their tax bracket, ZIP code or street address.” 

In the meantime, Lembo’s situation is much the same as it has been for years, if not worse. He is defenseless, and his recent publicity could even bring about an increase in criminal attention. 

Unless a judge issues an injunction granting him the ability to keep a gun while his case progresses, he will be disarmed for the duration of what could be a grueling legal battle, complete with appeals or review by higher courts. The one silver lining to this dreadful scenario is that if he wins, life in Maine may become more tolerable for other vulnerable residents.