HAMBURG, Germany (AP) — A former member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses shot dead six people at a hall belonging to the congregation in the German city of Hamburg before killing himself after police arrived, authorities said Friday.
Police said an unborn baby also died, without clarifying whether the baby’s mother was among the dead. Eight people were wounded, four of them seriously.
There was no immediate indication of a possible motive for Thursday night’s attack, which stunned Germany’s second-biggest city, but prosecutors said there was no evidence for a terrorist link. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a former Hamburg mayor, described it as “a brutal act of violence.”
Hamburg’s top security official said officers who arrived just minutes after receiving the first emergency call at 9:04 p.m. A special operations unit that was nearby reached the site at 9:09 and was able to separate the gunman from the congregation, Hamburg’s state Interior Minister Andy Grote said.
“We can assume that they saved many people’s lives this way,” he told reporters during a news conference. Grote called the shooting “the worst crime that our city has experience recently.”
Officials said the gunman was a 35-year-old German national identified only as Philipp F., in line with German privacy rules. He fired more than 100 rounds during the attack.
Hamburg police chief Ralf Martin Meyer said the man had a weapons license and legally owned a semi-automatic pistol. He said the suspected shooter was previously investigated after authorities received a tip that he might not be suitable to bear firearms, but was found not to have broken rules.
Police did not use their own firearms, a police spokesman said.
The head of Germany’s GdP police union in Hamburg, Horst Niens, said he was convinced that the swift arrival of a special operations unit “distracted the perpetrator and may have prevented further victims.”
Germany’s gun laws are more restrictive than those in the United States, but permissive compared with some European neighbors, and shootings are not unheard of.
Last year, an 18-year-old man opened fire in a packed lecture at Heidelberg University, killing one person and wounding three others before killing himself. In January 2020, a man shot dead six people including his parents and wounded two others in southwestern Germany, while a month later, a shooter who posted a racist rant online killed nine people near Frankfurt.
In the most recent shooting involving a site of worship, a far-right extremist attempted to force his way into a synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day, in October 2019. After failing to gain entry, he shot two people to death nearby.
The German government announced plans last year to crack down on gun ownership by suspected extremists and to tighten background checks. Currently, anyone wanting to acquire a firearm must show that they are suited to do so, including by proving that they require a gun. Reasons can include being part of a sports shooting club or being a hunter.
Asked about a possible political response to the shooting, a spokesperson for Germany’s Interior Ministry, Maximilian Kall, said it was necessary to wait for the results of the investigations before drawing conclusions.
On Friday morning, forensic investigators in protective white suits could be seen outside the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall, a boxy, three-story building next to an auto repair shop, a few kilometers (miles) from downtown Hamburg. As a light snow fell, officers placed yellow cones on the ground and windowsills to mark evidence.
David Semonian, a U.S.-based spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, said in an emailed statement early Friday that members “worldwide grieve for the victims of this traumatic event.”
“The congregation elders in the local area are providing pastoral care for those affected by the event,” he wrote.
Police spokesman Holger Vehren said police were alerted to the shooting Thursday night and were at the scene quickly.
He said that the officers found people with apparent gunshot wounds on the ground floor, and then heard a shot from an upper floor, where they found a fatally wounded person who may have been a shooter. They did not fire their weapons.
Student Laura Bauch, who lives nearby, said there were around four periods of shooting, German news agency dpa reported. “There were always several shots in these periods,” she said.
Bauch said she looked out her window and saw a person running from the ground floor to the second floor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses hall.
Gregor Miebach, who lives within sight of the building, heard shots and filmed a figure entering the building through a window. In his footage, shots can then be heard from inside. The figure later apparently emerges from the hall, is seen in the courtyard and then fires more shots through a first floor window before the lights in the room go out.
Miebach told German television news agency NonstopNews that he heard at least 25 shots. After police arrived, one last shot followed, he said.
His mother, Dorte Miebach, said she was shocked by the shooting. “It’s really 50 meters (yards) from our house and many people died,” she said. “This is still incomprehensible. We still haven’t quite come to terms with it.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are part of an international church, founded in the United States in the 19th century and headquartered 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. The denomination’s practices include a refusal to bear arms, receive blood transfusions, salute a national flag or participate in secular government.