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Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard’s mood Monday was decidedly more upbeat than four years ago when he was sworn in for a second term with a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit over conditions in the county’s two jails hanging over his head.

“It took a long time but I honestly think people finally realize that the problems in the jail – whatever problems there were – had to do with funding and the funding’s been provided by the county,” he said Monday in Old County Hall after taking the oath of office for his third term.

Howard, 63, sounded pleased during Monday’s celebratory affair to have the lawsuit and other difficulties that plagued his first two terms behind him.

But the new year finds the lifelong lawman embroiled in a new debate over his stance against the SAFE Act, the new state firearms law that has outraged gun owners.

“I want safe, responsible gun ownership,” Howard said. “I don’t want guns in the hands of criminals that would injure people. But, at the same time, I don’t want law-abiding citizens to lose their right to keep and bear arms.”

Howard’s pledge in May to not enforce the law thrust him in the spotlight and propelled him to overwhelming victory in November over two opponents.

“With Tim Howard, the citizens of Erie County have again insisted on the best,” said guest speaker State Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, who preceded Howard as sheriff and named him undersheriff.

With Howard’s wife, Sue, holding the Bible, State Supreme Court Justice M. William Boller swore in the Republican sheriff who was surrounded by his friends, family and his department’s command staff during the half-hour ceremony.

Howard said Monday he would continue his opposition to the state gun control law, specifically its mental health provision, which allows the state to confiscate weapons belonging to people who seek professional help if they’re deemed a threat to themselves or others.

“Individuals that need mental health treatment should not be fearful about getting the help that they need out of fear of losing their firearms forever,” he said.

Howard said that one of his goals when he was sworn in four years ago was to “get this jail issue behind us.”

The suit was dismissed in August 2011 after an agreement was reached that calls for hiring 72 additional people in the Jail Management Division by 2015 to address a variety of problems, including excessive overtime.

Howard sparred with Budget Office officials in November over an apparent lack of funding for corrections officers and other staff at the Alden Correctional Facility.

“Given the agreement, they can’t take away that funding even if they want to,” he said. “So we’ll continue on our path to recovery.”

At the ceremony, former Erie County Sheriff Michael A. Amico, 93, was honored with his 1947 Air Force discharge papers found by Erie County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs in the county’s records room. Amico was sheriff when Howard started his career in 1972.

The standing-room only crowd also held a moment of silence for Collins Town Justice Norman Peters, who gave Howard his first oath of office as sheriff in January 2006. It was announced that Peters died Monday.

email: jpopiolkowski@buffnews.com