In 2017 Johnson represented controversial figure Rich Wyatt in his federal criminal jury trial in front of Chief Judge Marsha Krieger in Denver. Wyatt had been a high-profile figure in Jefferson County politics for years. He was an ex-reality TV star who had been the creator of a highly successful production that featured Wyatt and his family involved in the world of firearms. The show centered on Wyatt’s Wheat Ridge based business known as Gunsmoke Guns. The gun shop offered a wide variety of firearms and gunsmithing services. Wyatt also dedicated a section of his business to a museum of artifacts related to both history and weaponry. Wyatt had been a commentator on television programs with a national audience regarding laws that impacted gun rights.
However, in 2017 Wyatt found himself on trial in federal court charged with multiple counts of operating a gun shop without a federal license, failing to file tax returns for multiple years and also filing a materially false tax return. Records presented during the trial showed that Wyatt had lost his license to sell firearms and then had continued to operate Gunsmoke Guns; selling handguns to the public. The ATF engaged in an undercover sting operation; sending in a federal agent who posed as a first-time purchaser.
Wyatt’s defense focused on the fact that Wyatt made certain that everyone who purchased a handgun from his store was eligible to own a firearm because they all passed a background check. The background check was conducted at another gun shop that had partnered with Wyatt. The trial evolved into an intense debate over the intent of Congress in requiring the licensing of gun shops.
The bitter debate over Wyatt’s criminal intent lasted over six days of proceedings and the jury deliberated for another five days before returning what Westward magazine characterized as a “mixed verdict”. Wyatt was found guilty of two counts of conspiracy to sell weapons without a license but the jury deadlocked on the charges of Dealing Firearms Without a License. Wyatt’s case was later reversed by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals based upon a finding that the judge failed to properly instruct the jury on what Wyatt’s criminal intent would have to have been for conviction.
Rich Wyatt’s case is important in that it shows the use of criminal statues to regulate the conduct of businesses. For example, there is an entire set of civil statutes administered by the ATF that dictate the licensing and regulation of gun shops. Violation of those administrative regulations can result in penalties or the suspension of the license itself. However, if a gun shop operator loses that license to sell firearms and continues to sell weapons, he or she is subject to being prosecuted and imprisoned. The “crime” is not selling a handgun to a criminal but instead the simple act of doing the sale without ATF licensing.