The untold truth of American Guns

Far more than just a simple TV show, American Guns was a window into a way of life for Rich Wyatt and his family. For two short seasons on the Discovery Channel, the series celebrated guns, family, and American gun culture, letting audiences see what it means to have a love of firearms that extends to each component. Part Pawn Stars, part How It's Made, the series moved into a second season with a growing fanbase—but then, almost as quickly as it took off in the ratings, the show was canceled, and American Guns was no more.

So what really happened with the show? And what happened after it went off the air? As it turned out, Rich had a few serious secrets that Discovery Channel, and its viewers, never knew about. Read on for everything you need to know about this short-lived phenomenon and its aftermath, because we're bringing you the untold truth of Rich Wyatt and American Guns.

Meet the family

For two seasons and 26 episodes, American Guns was shot on location at Gunsmoke Guns, a real store on West 44th Ave. in the Denver, Colorado, suburb of Wheat Ridge. The shop was the family business of Rich Wyatt, who operated the store with his wife, Renee, and their two children, Paige and Kurt.

The "family business" aspect of the shop wasn't invented for the sake of TV. Kurt, the store's engraver, started as a firearms instructor who became qualified as an expert by age 13. Paige's interests were always more in acting and modelling, but when the cameras came to town, she got the chance to get some clips on her performance reel while at the same time making a big impression on America with her firearms I.Q. And then there was Renee, Rich's wife, the store's accountant, and—on camera, at least—his frequent nemesis.

Outside of the family circle, the store was staffed by a number of gunsmiths, painters, welders, rifle builders, machinists, firearms trainers, and sales associates, only some of whom ever appeared on camera. 

After the show went off the air, the family continued to produce and post its own videos on its YouTube channel, GunsmokeGunsTV, and continued to do so until the federal government got in the way in May 2015—but more about that in a minute.

From Wheat Ridge to the world

Taking Gunsmoke from local notoriety to national TV was the work of Gurney Productions, a production company that would strike gold in 2012 with their show Duck Dynasty on A&E. Aside from that juggernaut, the production company had been or has since become responsible for series like Auction Hunters, Surviving Alaska, and Tiny House Builders. 

Sometime around 2010, a pilot the company shot at Gunsmoke Guns made its way to the Discovery Channel, where it was watched and well received. The channel had been looking to start producing shows that were steeped in Second Amendment culture, so the decision was made and agreed upon to fold Wyatt's store into their plan. The channel debuted both American Guns and sister series Sons of Guns ten months apart in 2011.

As entertainment, the show was something of a hybrid. In the front of the house, it let Rich Wyatt take center stage as a wheeling-and-dealing businessman, with segments showing the pawn shop peacocking ritual of negotiation. Meanwhile, in the back room, the shop's gunsmiths and engravers went to work on red-hot grinding and drilling action, turning blocks of raw metal into working firearms—the most reliably impressive segment of the show.

The legend of the gunsmith

As the show became more popular, so did its charismatic host, Rich Wyatt. Wyatt's clean-cut look and salesman's manner made him approachable, and as good as Wyatt was with selling guns, he was arguably even better at selling himself. Ever the self-promoter, Wyatt took out an ad in a 2002 issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine, offering a $100,000 reward for anyone who could manage to kill Osama bin Laden while using a rifle built by Gunsmoke.

Not that he was seeking the spotlight without bona fides. Wyatt was a trained gunsmith who learned the trade while working for a number of manufacturers and also claimed to have trained personally under the tutelage of Jeff Cooper, the legendary firearms instructor and writer who helped popularize a number of enduring gun tenets, such as basic rules of safety, conditions of readiness, and the combat mindset color code. Wyatt also touted a 22-year-long law enforcement career that eventually had him as Colorado's Chief of Police in the small town of Alma. So he wasn't just some huckster trying to get on TV—or at least, he wasn't only a huckster.

Once American Guns was on the air, Wyatt used his platform to expand his influence in the wider world of the firearms industry, teaming up with Smith & Wesson to sell a Gunsmoke-branded .38 special that he designed, a $559 revolver called the Wyatt Deep Cover. True to form, Wyatt proudly claimed his design to be "the best concealed gun weapon ever."

Aurora Crossfire

After returning with a 50% increase in viewership over the previous year's premiere, the cast and crew of American Guns had every reason to believe they'd be on the air for years to come. The show's fortunes would soon change, however, with a shift in the political winds coinciding with a sudden loss of viewers. Concordantly, the second season was book-ended by two mass shootings, one of which took place near the store in the neighboring town of Aurora on the night of July 20.

While the gunman had not bought any of his weaponry from Gunsmoke Guns, Renee Wyatt still committed a massive public relations blunder when she offered a her thoughts on the shooting to Radar Online. The gossip outlet quoted her arguing that if one of the victims at the theater had been armed, then "that gunman could have been neutralized before he ever got a second round into the crowd." She further stated her belief that the mass tragedy was "a perfect example of why people who have acquired the ability to shoot should carry guns." 

Regardless of Wyatt's beliefs about guns, with 12 dead and 59 injured and the chaos still fresh, these were considered insensitive statements at best. In practice, they were exactly the wrong thing to say, bringing backlash to her, the store, and the program. The Discovery Channel promptly distanced itself from Wyatt, with a spokesman telling the Los Angeles Times that "Renee's opinions are hers and hers alone."

Politicized to death?

Without even knowing it at the time, American Guns aired its final episode on December 11, 2012, finishing off its run with a total of 26 episodes. Shortly after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting on December 14, 2012, Discovery Channel announced that the series had been canceled.

Many took the move as being a direct response to the shootings, but, according to a statement from Discovery Channel, the decision to cancel the show had already been made months prior. And while the series began its second season in April on a serious ratings upswing, by the end of the season, viewership was taking a massive decline. The show never suffered much of a drop in quality; its problems may have come from how it stayed more or less the same. The conflicts became inert, and Discovery executives overseeing the show had reportedly come to the conclusion there was "no story left to tell." 

As further evidence that American Guns' cancellation wasn't as politically motivated as many believed, the series' spiritual cousin, Sons of Guns, continued to air on the same network for several years. So while the channel likely did want to distance itself from the topic in the short term, it continued to stick with its first gun show for years to come.

A break-in

Following the cancellation of the series by Discovery, life went back to normal for the staff of Gunsmoke Guns—for a little while at least. Unbeknownst to most of the store's staff, a net was being drawn around the gun shop that would soon result in not only its closure but the arrest of Rich Wyatt by the federal government. Before any of that could happen, the store was robbed.

On February 27, just two months after the show had officially been canceled, thieves broke into the building by busting a hole through the roof, stealing over a dozen guns before disappearing into the night. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrived in Wheat Ridge to assist with the investigation, but no one was arrested for the theft.

It would have been nice for Rich Wyatt and the Gunsmoke staff if this unfortunate episode had marked the end of their troubles, with their store left to quietly recover and recede into anonymity. It was just a week after the robbery, before the crew could even finish processing the one-two punch of a cancellation and a break-in, that the feds came back a second time—and,  this time, they came for Wyatt. 

The taxman cometh and the start of the collapse

In March 2013, the Internal Revenue Service served a search warrant on site at Gunsmoke Guns, seeking several years' worth of financial records for Rich, Renee, and the Gunsmoke business itself. The warrant was served against them due to suspicion of tax fraud.

The IRS had begun looking into Gunsmoke after a tip from the ATF, agents at which had reason to believe Wyatt unlawfully possessed a number of firearms. In looking into his financial records, investigators discovered that Wyatt had failed to submit individual tax returns for 2008, 2009, and 2010. The paperwork he did submit had lies in it—like one 2011 form that declined to mention Wyatt was then being paid a handsome sum by the Discovery Channel to be a TV star. Wages were found to be under-reported, and the business, it was discovered, had never filed federal income tax returns.

During these troubles, the shop remained open, even as the IRS pored over Wyatt's personal and corporate financial records, finding enough evidence to prove a clear pattern of ongoing fraud. These tax issues were only the beginning of Wyatt's nightmare, as investigators would also uncover a bombshell revelation that would put the entire American Guns series in a whole new context and open Wyatt up to charges that would prove much, much worse for him than tax fraud.

A conspiracy of dunces

When investigators were going through Wyatt's paper trail, they discovered something shocking about Wyatt's federal firearms license—it didn't exist. In fact, Wyatt had surrendered his FFL in 2012, while American Guns was still in production. The loss of his FFL would have made it impossible for him to continue owning and operating a gun store, so he got clever.

To continue selling guns without his FFL, Wyatt went into an arrangement with another gun store in the area, Triggers Firearms, changing the address of that business to Gunsmoke's address. Through this arrangement, Wyatt was able to continue operating his store in violation of the law. Together with accomplices, he submitted false paperwork to the ATF that hid the fact that Wyatt was operating under a straw license that belonged to Triggers.

Before long, Triggers was forced to surrender its own firearms license, and the conspiracy branched out even further. Wyatt also roped his staff into the ruse, having his employees enter firearm sales into their system under fraudulent labels. From April 1, 2013, to March 31, 2015, to all outside appearances, Gunsmoke was just a regular working gun shop, where people could buy guns and commission gunsmithing services. However, when a customer needed to complete their background check, they would quietly be sent to do the paperwork at another store. When customers needed to pick up the guns they purchased, they did so at another store. It almost looked normal, but the government was watching closely.

The ATF raid

While Wyatt and his company were under investigation by the IRS, he proceeded on with his life as though nothing was wrong. Perhaps he wasn't worried about the tax discrepancies coming back to bite him in any real way. Little did he know, the IRS was only one of the federal agencies putting him in their crosshairs, and the second agency—the ATF—was tightening a net around him that he wouldn't even notice until it was too late.

On three separate occasions, undercover agents with the ATF purchased a total of four guns from Wyatt, every sale being illegal, owing to Wyatt's lack of an FFL. By March 31, their case was built, and the jig was up. The ATF raided Gunsmoke.

It's a shame American Guns had been off of the air for so long, because this would've made for an amazing climax to such a dramatic season-long arc. All told, the ATF seized Gunsmoke's supply of ammunition and 583 guns, leading to the immediate closure of the store.

Richard Wyatt arrested

It took nearly a year for all of the federal investigations against Wyatt to conclude in a grand jury indictment, which was returned on February 9, 2016. Wyatt surrendered two days later.

Finally, the charges against Wyatt were in the open. The one-time TV star faced charges of conspiracy, dealing in firearms without a license, filing a false tax return, failing to file a tax return, and failing to report more than $1.1 million of income.

After entering a plea of not guilty, he was released on an unsecured bond of $25,000 and taken to a halfway house to await trial.

The money monster

Wyatt's troubles with the IRS are amusing and, perhaps, not surprising, at least considering the way Wyatt portrayed himself on American Guns. On the series, Wyatt constantly bickered with his wife over matters of money, sparking arguments that often ended with her telling him that his impulsive financial decisions would catch up with him sooner or later.

Over the course of the investigation, the IRS determined that Wyatt had not paid personal income taxes or corporate taxes over a number of years, failing to pay personal income tax in 2009, 2010, and 2012, and failing to pay corporate tax in 2010, 2011, and 2012. Additionally, he was found to have filed a personal income tax return that he knew to be false in 2011, stating that he had lost money during the year when in fact he had made hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Discovery Channel.

Wyatt's lawyer attempted to extricate him from his legal woes by calling him an incompetent bookkeeper, saying "His books were a disaster. He was a horrible bookkeeper." The return that showed Wyatt losing money when in fact he'd just had a major windfall was argued as being an incomplete form. As to the conspiracy charges, Wyatt's lawyer ceded a little ground. In his argument, Wyatt may have been selling guns illegally, but at least he made sure the buyers got background checks—which is not a great argument, since it's illegal either way.

Rich's shady past

Rich's long, slow, steady downfall in the spotlight led to people poking around in his past, and more often than not, what they dug up about the semi-public figure was unsavory. Long before American Guns, Wyatt had run for sheriff in Jefferson County, Colorado, not only not winning, but suing the winner when he lost. And it's not like it was a close race—Wyatt was taken out of the running before the primaries.

Wyatt was also revealed to have had a history of lying, claiming to have retired from his job as Alma's Chief of Police when he was actually fired. After his firing, he refused to return his badge and fraudulently presented himself as an active member of law enforcement on at least one occasion.

Rich also made for a particularly deadbeat ex-husband, owing his wife before Renee both money and property. Wyatt, apparently lying, claimed he could not afford the payments. When Wyatt was at one point ordered to return 100 photographs of his ex-wife, he allegedly provided only some of them, defacing the ones he did return with lewd remarks. As a result, the judge in the proceedings had Wyatt arrested for contempt.

Wyatt convicted

On March 10, 2017, Wyatt was ultimately convicted of ten felony counts out of a possible 13, including conspiracy, dealing firearms without a license, tax evasion, fraud and more. A year later, he was sentenced to a six-and-a-half year prison sentence, with three years of supervised parole to follow. 

His attorney had asked the court to impose a sentence of, at most, two-and-a-half years, arguing that the access to firearms Wyatt would lose as a result of a felony conviction would be as "severe as could be imagined aside from incarceration." 

As part of his sentencing, he was also forced to forfeit 490 previously-seized firearms, and is expected to pay a hefty financial penalty as a result of the tax evasion charges as well.

The show's other criminal genius

Rich Wyatt wasn't the only brilliant dude involved with American Guns who tried to get one over on the law. In December 2011, a man named Wylie Newton wandered onto the set of the show in Gunsmoke as a prospective seller, offering to sell Wyatt a pair of Colt Dragoon black powder revolvers from the 1800s, valued at $20,000 a piece. The exchange, which was filmed and made it to air, caught the eye of a viewer who happened to know that a gun just like the ones Newton was offering had gone missing from a museum in New Mexico earlier that month. The eagle-eyed viewer called New Mexico police, who then called Wheat Ridge police, who then paid a visit to Newton and arrested him in a sting.