Berlin – Sorrow, solidarity and shock are among the sentiments being expressed in Germany as the country comes to terms with a mass shooting in which seven people died at a Jehovah’s Witness place of worship in Hamburg.
Several other people remain in a critical condition after a gunman fired a semiautomatic pistol in the worship hall at approximately 9pm local time on Thursday.
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Authorities identified the perpetrator as Philipp F, a 35-year-old former member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community who reportedly left the group about 18 months ago on bad terms. After the shootings, the gunman died when he turned the gun on himself.
Hamburg Mayor Peter Tschentscher described the news as “shattering” while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said at the site of the attack that he was left “speechless” by the incident.
Outside of Hamburg, people across Germany were shocked and saddened by the news.
Osman Oers is a founding member and imam at the House of One, a faith centre currently being built in the German capital of Berlin that will become a shared religious site between Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith groups.
“All of us at the House of One regret all the deaths at Jehovah’s Witness community in Hamburg,” Oers told Al Jazeera. “We – Jews, Christians and Muslims in the House of One – feel for them and include them in our prayers. I wish the bereaved families and all those who had to witness this terrible event much strength and patience to overcome this horror.”
Daniel Egbe, a chemistry professor, said that the mass shooting was “a shocking event for Germany”.
“My initial assumption was that this was a racially motivated attack, which Germany has unfortunately experienced many times before, so I was deeply shocked when I heard that it was within a religious community,” said Egbe, who is also the founder of the migrant-focused organisation African Network for Solar Energy in Halle, central-eastern Germany.
Growing calls for better gun ownership measures
According to media reports, authorities had given Philipp F the all-clear last month after they were anonymously tipped off that he was exhibiting disturbing behaviour and carried ill feelings towards the community. After police carried out an unannounced check on his home on February 7, they found no signs of mental illness and allowed him to keep his gun after being satisfied that it was properly stored.
In Germany, it is legal for people aged 18 or over with no criminal history to obtain a permit to own a gun if they meet certain legal requirements. Official figures show that there are more than 940,000 registered private gun owners in Germany, many of whom are sport shooters or hunters.
The latest shooting has increased pressure on the government to do stronger background checks and tighten measures around gun ownership, an issue which was already on the agenda following a series of incidents involving guns in the last few years.
In December, illegal firearms were among the weapons found during raids carried out on members of a far-right group suspected of attempting to overthrow the German government.
Two years earlier, in February 2020, a far-right extremist killed 10 non-white Germans and wounded five others in the central city of Hanau, in what is considered one of the worst racially motivated attacks in the country in recent years.
The events in Hanau followed the deaths of two people at a synagogue in Halle who were shot by a far-right extremist on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. That same year, politician Walter Luebcke was shot at point-blank range outside his home in central Germany by a man with far-right links who has since been jailed for life.
More needs to be done
In the wake of this latest instance of gun violence, some believe more needs to be done to address gun ownership in Germany.
Nataly Jung-Hwa Han, chairwoman of Korea Verband, a Korea-German intercultural organization based in Berlin, told Al Jazeera that Thursday’s tragedy was not something that you would expect to happen in the country.
“The news took me by surprise as we are used to hearing shootings like this happening in the US, not in Germany,” she said. “But the incident shows that there is still an issue around guns being misused in the country and I don’t understand why more isn’t being done to stop the guns falling into the wrong hands.
“The government must work harder to control gun ownership in the country and to protect innocent lives from being lost by gun violence,” she added.
For Egbe, the chemistry professor, more restrictions need to be put in place to monitor gun owners.
“The psychological stability of a potential gun owner should be tested as we don’t want to get into the situation that we witness happening so often in America,” he said.
For Oers, the imam in Berlin, the incident has also further highlighted the risks facing religious communities.
“The rampage in Hamburg has shaken us all very much. The attack illustrates once again that more attention must be paid to the protection and security of religious communities in Europe. Awareness of this must also be raised,” he said.