He's a veteran with a pistol permit, so Andrew Ciepiela said he was just trying to follow the rules when he went to Old County Hall last summer to register a century-old Iver Johnson revolver that had been passed down through three generations of his family.
He sees the 1917 firearm as a family heirloom.
But that's not how the Erie County Pistol Permit Department saw it. The department classified the firearm as a "nuisance weapon" after a check revealed that someone else decades ago had registered the gun. Not only did the department refuse Ciepiela's request to add the firearm to his permit, it cleared the way for the West Seneca Police Department to destroy the gun.
"I wasn't expecting any issue. It took me by great surprise," recalled Ciepiela, 46, a retired staff sergeant with four deployments during his 22 years in the Army. The West Seneca resident left the county office in July determined to fight what he saw as "big government stomping on the little guy."
An official in the pistol permit department brusquely told him to get an attorney and go to court if he wanted to contest the decision, he said. Instead, Ciepiela filed a legal petition on his own and argued the case in court himself. And chances look good that Ciepiela will be able to get back and register the .38 caliber revolver. The gun has been at the West Seneca Police Department during Ciepiela's legal proceedings.
"If this firearm had been legally owned and missing from a registered owner for well over 30-plus years, why is there no record of the theft or letter of lost firearm?" Ciepiela asked in his court paperwork.
Assistant County Attorney Thomas Navarro told State Supreme Court Justice Emilio Colaiacovo last week that authorities traced the gun's ownership to an Orleans County doctor who registered it in 1951 when he was 65 years old.
"How it got into petitioner's hands, we don't know," Navarro said.
The county's permit office didn't have the authority to register the gun for Ciepiela given the previous registration, Navarro said.
The county asked the state police to investigate to make sure the weapon wasn't in the wrong hands, he said.
"We don't want guns out on the streets unlawfully possessed," he said.
When Colaiacovo asked Navarro if the county had any objections to Ciepiela keeping the weapon, the county lawyer replied, "none at all."
Navarro said a judge's order is required for Ciepiela to be considered the weapon's lawful owner. Navarro offered to prepare the order, show it to Ciepiela and then submit it to the judge, who signaled a willingness to sign it.
Once the judge signs the order, Ciepiela will be allowed to retrieve the revolver and add it to his permit.
Navarro said he didn't see a reason to destroy the gun but legal steps had to be followed.
"Why destroy it?" Navarro asked. "It was going to be saved. We just had to go through the process."
Eileen Ciepiela, who is Andrew's mother, said the weapon belonged to her father.
"I don't know how my dad came to get it," she said.
After her father died, her husband took the gun, and then he died several years ago, she said.
"The firearm went from my grandfather to my father to me though simple passage of time," Andrew Ciepiela said in court papers.
He said he has no intention of firing the antique revolver. He doesn't even know if cartridges are made any longer for the gun. He told the court he wants the gun back "for heirloom purposes and its historical value only."