It would have been newsworthy if Michael Brea, a young actor from the television series Ugly Betty, had killed his mother with a gun. But when he slashed her to death last November in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a 3-foot-long Masonic blade, his crime made the front page: A sword nut gone berserk.
Brea's choice of weapon may not have been his greatest derangement—"I didn't kill her, I killed the demon inside her," he insisted afterward—but it was certainly odd. In the United States, at least, murderers tend to shoot people: Two-thirds of the nation's homicides—about 10,000 per year—are committed with firearms. Drug dealers use handguns to protect their turf; athletes keep them in their pants. Among cops, shooting is contagious. When teenagers snap, they bring guns to school.
Knives are less common, but more intimate—the tool of muggers, rapists, prisoners, and old-fashioned street toughs. The hijackers on 9/11 may have used box-cutters, which would have been easy to hide in their carry-on bags. But a 3-foot blade? It's the plaything of a deviant mind. A man with a sword has no interest in concealment and no hope of escape. He might try to hide his weapon—by hanging it from his neck, let's say, under an overcoat—but that's playing against type: A sword isn't sneaked to the scene of the crime; it's lifted from the mantel at the moment of need. Because, really, there's nothing more grandiose and theatrical than the vorpal blade. It's the weapon of dueling gentlemen and swashbuckling adventurers, of knights in armor and the horse lords of Rohan.
That is to say, the sword is the weapon of nerds. It's also the weapon of schizophrenics. And, most of all, it's the weapon of schizophrenic nerds.
Consider how Michael Brea described his mother's slaying in November: "I felt like Neo from The Matrix." Then he added, "It's a powerful sword"—as if his murder weapon had been forged by goblins. It's said there are crimes of passion and crimes of logic. Brea's was one of science fiction and fantasy.
Same goes for the Florida man with shoulder-length hair who killed his girlfriend's stepfather with a samurai sword in 2008—and then told the police that he was a Wiccan high priest. Or the supermarket bagger in Irvine, Calif., who killed two people with a katana in 2003 and was obsessed with Highlander, a film and television series about immortal, time-traveling swordsmen. Or the South African boy who sliced up his schoolmates with three swords while wearing a monster mask (and suffering anxiety about an upcoming exam).
That's not to say demented nerds are responsible for every act of sword-based violence. Just before Christmas, a guy in Terre Haute, Ind., used a samurai sword to chop off another man's fingers in a street fight. Earlier in the year, someone in Cheyenne, Wyo., robbed a convenience store with a 3-foot katana. And in February, a Kentucky psychiatrist stabbed one of his patients with a sword at his office building. It may be that none of these men believed he was a Jedi knight or a level-20 paladin, but the mere fact of their armament suggests membership in a geeky and aggressive subculture. Men who collect swords are the same ones who become obsessed with kendo and historical re-enactments—if they're not too busy playing D&D or SoulCalibur. Which is to say: It may not make you a lunatic to have an ornamental blade hanging on your living-room wall. But it's a pretty good sign that you're a dork.
The archetypical sword murderer, for his part, is a 20- to 40-year-old white male who still lives with his parents. He's often a paranoid schizophrenic, and he often expresses himself by killing his mother or father.
Especially his mother. Take the case of Mark Yavorski, a 34-year-old man who committed matricide with an antique saber in a San Diego suburb in 1979. He killed her, he said, to protect her from a nuclear holocaust—although it's worth noting that he was, at the time, rehearsing a role in a local production of Aeschylus' Oresteia, in which the title character plunges a sword into his mother's breast. (Yavorski's peculiar story is dramatized in the Werner Herzog film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.)
Surely it's significant that both Yavorksi and Michael Brea chose to penetrate their mothers with a long sword. (As it happens, criminologists have found that mothers are more likely than fathers to be stabbed to death by their children.) But their status as momma's boys may be more to the point than the phallic tensions and parricidal themes of Greek drama. Yavorski and Brea seem less like Orestes than Norman Bates from Psycho, less a tragic hero than an evil nerd—a maladjusted man-boy who strikes down his castrating mother. (Were Mrs. Yavorski and Mrs. Brea anything like the fictional Mrs. Bates? We have no idea.)
How often do people try to kill their parents with swords? We know that parricides make up about 1.5 percent of all murders, and that more than half of those family killings involve some sort of edged weapon. Confirmed, all-in-the-family sword attacks are not as unusual as you might think: In the past few years, we've had news of the Long Island, N.Y., teen who tried to decapitate his stepfather with a 23-inch blade and the California woman who talked to dog-fairy spirits and stabbed her mother in the back. Then there was the woman who killed her toddler twins with a 2-foot sword in October, and the elderly Indianapolis woman who was killed trying to break up a sword fight between her grandson and his great-uncle. And just last month—the day after Christmas—came word that a 39-year-old man in San Diego had burst into his father's bedroom at 3 o'clock in the morning, planning to cut off his hand.
If you throw in all the nonparricidal attacks—like the porn actor in California who stabbed his co-star to death with a samurai sword last summer, or the Delaware college student who slew his girlfriend with a 4-foot blade in 2009—then sword violence starts to look like a problem. A small problem, and a weird problem, but a problem nonetheless.
Maybe people shouldn't be allowed to buy and sell replica swords, nor carry them around. (You can order a cheapo katana online for $100 or less.) There haven't been any serious attempts as of yet to restrict the market, though advocates for the right to bear knives have been lobbying over the federal Switchblade Act and new rules on "tactical knives." America's sword laws are all over the map, says Doug Ritter, chairman of the Arizona-based lobbying group Knife Rights (motto: "A sharper future"). "In some states, swords are perfectly legal," he explains. "You can have a broadsword strapped to your back if you want."
Here in the United States, we seem inclined to agree with the Knife Rights crowd that swords don't kill people; nerds kill people. But across the pond, where firearms are rare, samurai sword crimes are taken far more seriously. If gun-control laws make it so you can't shoot someone, then you may as well stab him in the heart or shoot him with a crossbow. That may explain why the medieval-weapon-wielding Brit isn't as geeky or weird as his American counterpart: Much of the time, he's just some angry drunk or street brawler. In fact, samurai-swordfights have become so common in the United Kingdom—one member of Parliament says they happen every week in her home city—that the government moved to ban the manufacture, sale, or import of Japanese-style replica swords in 2008 *.
A similar ban in the United States might bring a small reduction in sword-based violence. But before we start disarming the nerds, let's examine the unintended consequences: The most vulnerable and easily-picked-on people in the nation would be left without their primary means of self-defense. Consider young Jesse Endsley, who defended his Charlotte, N.C., home from burglars a few weeks ago. When he saw three men on the front porch, Endsley raced upstairs to his bedroom and grabbed the samurai sword he'd recently purchased at a convention. "I was scared," he said, "but when I went outside with the sword the fear left my body and it was like just get 'em." Or John Pontolillo, the 21-year-old chemistry major at Johns Hopkins who stabbed and killed an intruder with his samurai sword after his video game console and laptop had been stolen. With their scabbards empty, what would they have done?