So, in the UK we are once more having the "Samurai Sword" debate in the press as the government heads towards banning them. There is a lot wrong with this, but it's dangerous to say so because the legislation is a reaction to nutters who slash at people with such swords, and to argue against such legislation makes it sound like you think people should be allowed to do it. Obviously, anyone slashing with a "Samurai Sword" ought to be incarcenated — the Japanese katana is a filing weapon, not a slashing weapon, tsk tsk, but strangely that's not the point that many commentators pick up on when these incidents are reported.
No, the problem is that it's already illegal to attack someone with a sword, whether that sword is Japanese or European. Passing a law to make ownership of such a thing illegal unless you have a good excuse is fundamentally silly for a number of reasons. But the main one is that it is too specific. The law will need to decide and declare when a sword is a sword and not a machete. For example, the nutters who buy their "Samurai Swords" from the internet are encouraged to buy them in pairs, and the shorter of the two (ahem, the wakizashi) is barely longer than a carving knife (oh all right, a big carving knife) or, say, a carpenter's saw, so it's not quite as simple as saying "sword".
And then you have the problem of what exactly constitutes a good excuse. The problem is that being enrolled as student of a martial art may well constitute a good excuse. That's troubling because a sizable proportion of people doing martial arts, as the normal people who train can attest, absolutely are nutters. (Earlier this year there was a petition on the Number 10 website on which people could sign their disapproval of the forthcoming "Samurai Sword" ban. You can bet that that list of names is now the first item in the folder marked "Potential Nutters" in the "Samurai Sword" unit of the Home Office — of course not everybody on that list is a dangerous nutter, just some (many) of them, and it's a good a place to start as any).
The bizarre thing about this is that iaido, of all the martial arts, is one of the best at self-policing. Not because of the heightened moral standards that the rituals of the art require, or the rigorous selection criteria of the registered teachers in the UK. It's because iaido, perhaps with the exception of t'ai chi, is the least rewarding art for someone looking for some instant gratification. It's not an art that really needs legislating, so it's unfortunate that they are unhelpfully at the sharp end of the media attention on "Samurai Swords". You spend fifteen years making your knees hurt and your thighs tremble before you can feel confident about slashing — uh, cutting — at anything. Of course I'm not a criminal profiler, and people who put themselves through this may well be nutters (inevitably I know several (you know who you are)) but not the kind of nutters we need to be worrying about.
The legislation on gun ownership in the UK was changed after terrible public shootings such as Hungerford. Maybe that has worked. I'm used to living in a society where unarmed police shout "Stop! Or I'll shout stop again!" and it's still a wee bit alarming to see a real gun in real life (such as the ones on display for shooting terrorists at Heathrow airport) and naturally I am used to seeing this as a good thing. But one silly consequence of the law was that the GB Olympic shooting teams have to train on the continent, and legislation was changed for the Commonwealth Games (and will need to be excepted again for the 2012 Olympics). Will the "Samurai sword" ban affect the UK Fencing Teams? Will their swords be excepted because they are European? Or because they aren't sharp enough? A legal test for the sharpness of a sword? Oh dear. Ultimately this will end up as lawyers arguing as to how many fairies can dance on the tip of a sword.
Probably, yes, the best solution will ultimately be a rigorous licensing of swords like we have of firearms. But the problem is you can't legislate the problem of nutters away by simply forbidding them to own the weapons. All you're really doing is making it harder to get their weapons cheaply, which is a start, but it's a very heavy handed start. And perhaps our parliament has more important things to be concentrating on than passing such specific and uneffective laws.
Ah yes, the firehoses. Firehoses were invented by the Japanese as an effective way of dealing with a swordsman. Japan is an island nation with an abundant supply of water, so it was an obvious element to use. Northern Irish firefighters recently found themselves being attacked by a "Samurai sword"-wielding nutter. They quickly did some reasearch on the Internet and discovered the historical fact that the Japanese footsoldiers often defeated advancing samurai with powerful jets of water (I'm not sure but I think it's somewhere on the British Museum's website). And so they were able to successfully defend themselves.