So by the 20th century gunmakers started to market their guns not just as a tool, but a feeling. "What was once needed, now had to be loved," said Haag.
There was a strong appeal to the young, too, and the notion of the gun as a rite of passage.
One of the more interesting ads, Haag noted, from 1921, read: "You know your boy wants a gun, you just don't know how much he wants it. He can't tell you. It's beyond words!"
For parents worried about real guns, there were catalogs full of toy ones -- a "must-have" immortalized in what is now a Christmas classic ("The holy grail of Christmas gifts! The Red Ryder 200 shot range model air rifle!").
It resembled the iconic rifles of the Wild West, and nothing romanticized the gun better than the cowboy.
From real-life legends like Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp and Annie Oakley, to Hollywood immortals like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, the gun came to represent the rugged individualism of the untamed West.
As the good guys and bad guys changed, so did the guns. And some became as famous as the stars who fired them.
"Being that this is a .44 magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?"
We do take our guns seriously; owning them is a Constitutional right, but we've also tried to legislate how to control them. "Americans have always had mixed feelings about guns," said Haag. "So for as much as the gunslingers are part of our heritage, so, too, is disquiet and discomfort with guns."
Even in the supposed Wild West, towns like Tombstone and Dodge City prohibited people from carrying guns in public.
FDR signed the first federal gun control legislation in 1934, hoping to reduce the number of bootlegging gangsters armed with Tommy Guns and the like.
Then fast-forward three decades: The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King led President Lyndon Johnson to push through the Gun Control Act of 1968.
The shooting at an Orlando nightclub in June was the worst mass shooting in modern history.
- Orlando shooting victims: Remembering the 49
- Chicago gun shop offers AR-15 in raffle to benefit Orlando victims
- Complete CBSNews.com coverage: Orlando nightclub massacre
Weeks later, in Dallas, police were ambushed during a Black Lives Matter protest.
In both cases, the guns were bought legally.
In fact, incidents like that tend to spur the sales of even more guns. In the year after the Sandy Hook massacre, U.S. gun-makers produced nearly 11 million firearms.
- At trade show, gun culture is all the rage (CBS Moneywatch, 01/20/16)
- Four gun control measures fail in the Senate
- CBS News producer shows ease of buying an assault rifle ("CBS Evening News," 06/16/16)
Not far from Sandy Hook, in Hartford, Connecticut, sits a church built by Samuel Colt's widow. It stands as a unique symbol of where guns sit in our culture today. Because mixed in with the cherubs and the saints, you'll find her husband's firearms as art on the walls, mingling with the ivy, hidden at the top of the church's columns.
And maybe that's the place guns will always occupy -- worshipped by many, their presence carved in stone.
For more info:
- Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.
- "The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture" by Pamela Haag (Basic Books)
- Independent Studio Services, Sunland, Calif.
- Church of the Good Shepherd, Hartford, Conn.
- Connecticut Historical Society
- Connecticut State Library