It seems like a never-ending cycle. After every tragic instance of mass shooting, the issue of gun control is once again discussed.

What does Jewish law say about the matter? For a general overview of the Jewish perspective on gun laws, I would refer you to What Does Judaism Say About Gun Control? Here we will focus on the very specific question of whether gun sellers are responsible for guns used in a crime.

Do Guns Kill, or Do People Kill?

It seems that this was the basis for a cryptic argument recorded in the book of Genesis between Lemech and his two wives, Adah and Zillah.

After we learn that the son born to Lemech and Zillah “sharpened all tools that cut copper and iron,” Lemech told his wives:

Have I slain a man by wounding and a child by bruising? If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then for Lemech it shall be seventy-sevenfold.1

Nachmanides explains that the wise Lemech had taught each of his sons a different profession: his eldest son, Jabal, herding; the second son, Jubal, music; and the third son, Tubal-Cain, metallurgy.

His wives were then afraid that he would be guilty in the eyes of G‑d because he had introduced the production of metal weapons and thus enabled murder.

Lemech responded by saying that he had not killed anyone by furnishing them with a weapon: “It is not the sword that kills, but the bad choice by a man. Without a sword, too, a man could kill another by wounding and battering, as did Cain."

Adah and Zillah took the approach that the weapons manufacturer is liable, while Lemech held that he was not. The Torah, however, takes a more nuanced approach that falls somewhere between the two extremes.

Enabling a Crime

The Talmud tells us that one is forbidden to sell dangerous items—including weapons, or anything commonly used to manufacture weapons, as well as their accessories—to any person who may have the intent to use them to cause harm or perpetrate a crime.2

The reason for this prohibition is clear. We do not want people getting hurt or dying. And restricting evil-doers’ access to materials that make this possible is an obvious course of action.

There is discussion in the commentaries regarding the exact nature of this prohibition. One approach is to see it as a unique prohibition since it can lead to murder.3

Alternatively, it can be seen as falling under the general rubric of the prohibition of lifnei iver (“before a blind man you may not place a stumbling block”).4 As understood by the sages, this includes enabling a person to sin. Like the stumbling block, in isolation your action may be innocent. But knowing what you know about the person near you (who is likely to do negative acts with this object), you have enabled a forbidden action.

If we take the latter approach, it would seem that the gun distributor is not culpable because this law only applies when the would-be sinner has no other means of accomplishing the sin (similar to handing a Nazirite a glass of wine on a desert island). However, in a society where guns are widely available from a variety of sources, the individual from whom the weapon was attained could claim that the sin could have been easily carried out without him.

However, commentators5 point out that even if this prohibition is based on lifnei iver, there is still a big difference between the classic case of facilitating a sinful act and how it would apply to the prohibition of selling dangerous items.

In a classic case, the concern is for the actual person sinning, and you can therefore claim that the sin would have happened without you.

In this case, however, we are not just concerned with the sinner but with his victim. And even if the sinner would have perhaps accomplished his goals in other ways, the fact is that the weapon provider facilitated the loss of life—a terrible and tragic result of his actions.

How Far Does One Need to Go?

You only transgress the prohibition of lifnei iver if you know that the purchaser, or the majority of would-be purchasers, may use the item for negative purposes (e.g., known criminals or gang members). However, if it is only a minority of purchasers who may use the item for negative purposes, and you don’t have reason to believe that a particular buyer has negative intentions, you would apparently not be in violation of lifnei iver if you were to sell him or her the dangerous item.

Nevertheless, the halachah is that although we ordinarily don’t need to account for the minority (“miut”), in an instance where the minority is both significant and easy to identify, then you would be obligated to try to rule out potential problems.6 Thus it would seem that since background checks are relatively easy for gunsellers to perform, they may be obligated to do so from a halachic point of view.

Monetary Damages, Excomunication and Corporal Punishment

In Judaism, there are essentially two courts. There is the human court of law, and there is the heavenly court, where a person is judged in the eyes of G‑d.

Even though one who transgresses lifnei iver would not necessarily be held liable for damages in the earthly court, he may very well be culpable before the heavenly court.

Furthermore, even “down here” there are those halachic authorities7 who are of the opinion that the beth din, rabbinical court, would administer malkut (lashes) in this instance. Most, however, rule that due to various technicalities,8 one would not receive any corporal punishment.9 Nevertheless, according to the Code of Jewish Law, such a person would still be excommunicated.10

We all look forward to the times when, in the words of the prophets Isaiah and Micah, the nations will “beat their swords into plowshares,” and no one will imagine bloodshed any more.