As part of its broad campaign to sell the idea that guns belong everywhere in America, the National Rifle Association has positioned itself as an advocate for the poor. Over several decades, the organization has worked assiduously to overturn gun bans in public housing facilities across the country.

In Maine, private landlords who receive government subsidies on behalf of low-income tenants have long been able to ban guns in their buildings. But an NRA-backed bill that has cleared the state legislature would make it illegal to prohibit guns in public housing units. It is now on its way to pro-gun Governor Paul LePage, who is expected to sign it.

The passage of the legislation is a major priority for the NRA. Through extensive lobbying, the group singlehandedly brought the bill back to life in the House after it was spurned by a public safety committee earlier this year.

“The NRA has been pursuing these cases since at least the ’80s,” Richard Feldman, a former lobbyist for the organization, tells The Trace. “It’s low-hanging fruit for them. If you’re in public housing, you’re almost certainly dealing with a lot more crime than you would if you were living in a gated community.” And when residents of subsidized apartments face gun restrictions that private homeowners don’t, the NRA is presented with an opportunity to play populist champion. “From the NRA’s perspective, of course you’d take on the idea that wealthy people can own guns and poor people can’t,” says Feldman.

The Maine bill evolved out of lawsuit filed last year by a retired lobsterman who shot an intruder in his apartment in Rockland. The management company overseeing the property, which receives public housing subsidies, threatened to evict him from the building unless he relinquished his handgun. After the lobsterman took the management company to court, the NRA got involved, sending an attorney from Washington, D.C., to help out with the case. In January, with the lawsuit still ongoing, Senator Andre Cushing, the Republican Assistant Majority Leader, introduced the bill. The NRA leaned hard on lawmakers to get it passed.

“This was legislation in search of a problem that didn’t exist,” Representative Justin Chenette, a Democrat who serves on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, tells The Trace. “The law was literally based on one incident.” He expressed disappointment in many of his colleagues. Unlike them, he said, “I don’t take cues from the NRA on property rights.”

The Maine legislation can traced back to 1995, when the organization filed a lawsuit against the Portland Housing Authority over a gun ban it had enforced since the mid 1970s. The NRA represented an anonymous couple deemed in violation of its lease for owning firearms. Ultimately, in a six to zero ruling, the state Supreme Court sided with the NRA, saying the ban was unconstitutional because the state housing agency did not have the authority to regulate firearms independent of state law. The ruling, however, did not apply to private landlords.

Maine is not the only state where the NRA has had success persuading lawmakers to take on the group’s public housing agenda. In 1990, after a series of fatal shootings, the organization was unable to convince a federal court to overturn a public housing gun ban in Richmond, Virginia, with a judge declaring the prohibition to be “part of a good-faith effort to improve the safety and quality of life in public housing.” Stymied in court, the NRA turned to the statehouse. Less than six months after the unfavorable ruling, the group pressured the state legislature to pass a bill making it illegal in Virginia to include gun bans in public housing leases.

The NRA’s public housing campaign accelerated in the wake of District of Columbia v. Heller, the landmark Supreme Court case that affirmed the individual right to bear arms. “After Heller,” says Robert Spitzer, a law professor at SUNY-Cortland, “the NRA can now ask the reasonable question about why people living in public housing wouldn’t have the right to own a gun.” Equipped with that decision, the NRA has used lawsuits to overturn public housing gun bans in Wilmington, Delaware, and San Francisco.

The Maine bill merely broadens the legal ruling made by the state Supreme Court in 1995, but its inevitable passage marks yet another symbolic victory for the NRA.

“That they’re going after the issue is not a surprise,” Spitzer says. “It’s part of their ongoing effort to press guns into every segment of public life.”

Chenette, a 24-year-old, second-term legislator, has found the experience bewildering.

“No group like the NRA should be able to fly into this state and tell lawmakers what to do,” he says.

[Photo: Flickr user Dan DeLuca]