Mass shooting at Hamburg Jehovah’s Witness hall stuns Germany
The suspect, an ex-member of the religious community, killed six people before turning the gun on himself.
A gunman in Germany killed six people before turning the weapon on himself at a Jehovah’s Witness worship hall in the city of Hamburg, police and prosecutors say.
The 35-year-old man, a German citizen and former Jehovah’s Witness, used a semi-automatic pistol he had legally owned since December in the shooting, a Hamburg state prosecutor said on Friday at a news conference with police.
A woman who was seven months pregnant was among the injured in Thursday night’s shooting. Her foetus did not survive.
The attack has stunned Germany’s second biggest city. A motive has yet to be identified.
Andy Grote, the regional interior minister, said the attacker fled to the first floor of the building after police arrived “and killed himself”, adding that the rapid police deployment likely “saved many lives”.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a former Hamburg mayor, said he was left “speechless” by the “brutal act of violence”.
“We fear that further victims may die from their severe wounds,” he said.
Authorities identified the suspect as 35-year-old Philipp F. He had left the religious community about 18 months ago “but apparently not on good terms”, said Thomas Radszuweit, Hamburg’s head of state security.
There was “no indication of a terrorist background” to the attack, a spokesman for the Hamburg Public Prosecutor’s Office said.
According to a briefing given by police and prosecutors in Hamburg, the man was the licensed owner of a Heckler & Koch P30 semi-automatic handgun.
He was an amateur marksman, part of Germany’s strong hunting and gun sports tradition. According to government data, there are over 940,000 registered private gun owners in Germany, which has a population of 84 million people.
While he had no criminal record, the authorities had received an anonymous tip-off with allegations of disturbing behaviour in January.
“The anonymous person expressed the opinion in the letter that Philipp F. could be suffering from a mental illness, without, as the person wrote, this being medically diagnosed since Philipp F. would not seek medical treatment,” Ralf Meyer, the head of the Hamburg police, told the briefing.
The tip-off prompted two police officers to carry out an unannounced check at his home on February 7. The man was cooperative and gave no indication of mental health problems.
Investigators worked through the night to secure evidence. On Friday morning, forensic investigators in protective white suits could still be seen outside the building as light snow fell. Officers placed yellow cones on the ground and windowsills to mark evidence.
Al Jazeera’s William Peacock, reporting from Hamburg, said bodies were being removed on Friday.
“People are going to ask, ‘What do we have to do to stop this happening again?'” he said.
Police have asked witnesses to come forward and upload any pictures or videos they may have to a designated website.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are part of an international church founded in the United States in the 19th century. Its headquarters is in Warwick, New York.
It claims a worldwide membership of about 8.7 million with about 170,000 in Germany. Members are known for their evangelistic efforts that include knocking on doors and distributing literature in public squares.
David Semonian, a US-based spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, said members “worldwide grieve for the victims of this traumatic event”.
‘A shot from above’
The suspect shot nine magazines of ammunition.
A video, posted online by the Bild newspaper, showed a person firing multiple shots into the building through a first-floor window before the lights inside the room went out.
Germany’s dpa news agency, citing a reporter on the scene, reported residents in the city’s northern district of Alsterdorf received warnings on their mobile phones of a “life-threatening situation”.
Television footage showed dozens of police cars as well as fire engines blocking streets and some people wrapped in blankets being led by emergency service workers into a bus.
Police said they received an emergency call soon after 9pm (20:00 GMT) and officers arrived at the scene to find several people seriously wounded and some dead.
“Then they heard a shot from above,” a police spokesman said. “They went upstairs and found one further person.”
Student Laura Bauch, who lives nearby, said there were about “four periods of shooting”.
“There were always several shots in these periods, roughly at intervals of 20 seconds to a minute,” Bauch said.
Gregor Miesbach, who lives within sight of the building, told the German television news agency NonstopNews that he heard at least 25 shots. After police arrived, one last shot followed about five minutes later, he said.
The mayor of Hamburg expressed shock at Thursday’s bloodshed.
“I extend my deepest sympathy to the families of the victims,” Peter Tschentscher said on Twitter. “The forces are working at full speed to pursue the perpetrators and clarify the background.”
The interior ministry has said the country’s gun controls are already very strict. People aged 18 or over with no criminal history can obtain a permit to own a gun if they fulfil certain legal requirements. These regulate the weapon’s safe storage and also require that the individual is psychologically fit.
However, the government has come under pressure to tighten rules, following a string of attacks in recent years and most recently after authorities uncovered an extremist network plotting an armed coup late last year.
In February 2020, a gunman with suspected far-right links killed nine people, including immigrants from Turkey, in the western town of Hanau before killing himself and his mother.
In October 2019, a gunman killed two people when he opened fire outside a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur.