Back in 1999, The Economist published an interesting historical account of the emergence of America’s current gun culture. It debunks a number of myths, such as that the American populace in general has always been widely armed, that militias were important defensive forces, and that the ‘Wild West’ involved a lot of gun violence. It also includes interesting passages on the marketing of guns and gun ownership, first by manufacturers and later by the National Rifle Association:
[Gun maker Samuel] Colt was a self-publicist of genius. When his brother, John, unfraternally chose a mere axe with which to commit murder in 1841, Samuel persuaded the court to let him stage a shooting display inside the courtroom to demonstrate the superiority of the new revolver over the axe as a murder weapon. Using these publicity skills, and displaying precocious evidence of lobbying ability (he gave President Andrew Jackson a handgun and pioneered the practice of wining and dining members of Congress), Colt aimed his campaign at the growing middle class. He devised advertising campaigns showing a heroic figure wearing nothing but a revolver defending his wife and children. His guns were given nicknames (Equalizer, Peacemaker and so forth). Since most of his customers did not know how to use a firearm, he printed instructions on the cleaning cloth of every gun. His initial success shows up in the probate records: the percentage of wills listing firearms among their legacies rose by half between 1830 and 1850.
The axe, it seems, was a surprisingly popular murder weapon at certain times in history. Between 1800 and 1845, it came fourth. Beating, strangling, and drowning were in the lead, followed by stabbing, then guns, then axes.
The article describes how the first federal gun control law (banning sales by post) was only enacted after the Kennedy assassination, and mentions the subsequent role of the NRA in preventing more ambitious legal control over firearms.
It certainly makes for interesting reading.