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Mentally ill veteran sentenced to time served, released from custody in weapons possession case

The prosecution of Christopher M. Simmance was never about punishment.

Almost two years to the day he was arrested on weapons charges, the Army veteran was sentenced to time served by a judge who cited his willingness to get help.

It was in March 2013 that federal agents and local police arrested Simmance, a City of Tonawanda man with a long history of mental illness, and charged him with unlawfully keeping a shotgun at his home.

Authorities also accused him renting an assault-style rifle at a North Tonawanda gun range and telling a doctor he had thoughts about hurting people.

In a downtown courtroom today, a federal judge released Simmance from custody and encouraged him to continue his counseling and treatment.

“You’re going to have to work harder than ever before,” said U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.

Simmance was charged with felony possession of a weapon because it’s illegal under federal law for someone who has been committed to a mental health facility to own a gun.

His case also came amid an ongoing debate here and across the nation over gun control laws that seek to keep weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill.

“He’s in a very different place now than he was two years ago," said Brian P. Comerford, an assistant federal public defender.

Court papers outline Simmance’s history of mental illness and his previous run-ins with police.

The prosecutor handling Simmance’s case said it was always about protecting the public and Simmance, and never about punishing the defendant.

“Some of what we do is community caretaking,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney John M. Alsup.

Simmance, who served in the Army from January 1998 to January 2001, was involved in the Occupy Buffalo movement and at one point told reporters that he served in Afghanistan and Iraq and was wounded in combat.

But Army records do not support Simmance’s claims of seeing action in a war zone, The News reported in 2011.