While there were no indications of the gunman having connections to terrorist groups, local authorities did receive an anonymous message in January raising alarm about the man’s hatred of his former employer and religious groups, particularly the Jehovah’s Witnesses, of which he was a member until about 18 months ago.
The message led to questions about whether the man — who had legally purchased a semiautomatic handgun on a sports shooter license — was mentally fit to own a firearm. Investigators who subsequently checked the man’s home in February, however, did not find any evidence to justify revoking his license, police said Friday, while acknowledging those sent had not been trained to spot signs of mental illness.
Officials highlighted that a special police unit that arrived within minutes of the first emergency calls Thursday night, because it happened to be nearby, likely prevented far more deaths. About 50 people had gathered in the congregation Thursday night.
German officials said there were conflicting accounts of whether the gunman left the Jehovah’s Witnesses voluntarily in 2021 or whether he was expelled from the group. The U.S.-based faith group claims 8.7 million adherents worldwide in its congregations, known as Kingdom Halls, and about 170,500 members in Germany. The hall targeted Thursday night is located in a residential area in northern Hamburg, Germany’s second most populous city.
In a tweet, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — who until 2018 served as mayor of Hamburg — said the dead and injured had fallen “victim to a brutal act of violence last night. My thoughts are with them and their relatives.”
Condolences also poured in from abroad, including from French President Emmanuel Macron and the U.S. State Department, which said it strongly “condemns the senseless act of violence.”
The German Jehovah’s Witnesses group said in a statement that “our deepest sympathy goes to the families of the victims and the traumatized eyewitnesses. The local ministers are doing their best to support them in this difficult hour.”
In the Hamburg police news conference on Friday, local officials described how some victims appeared to have been shot while speaking to emergency dispatchers.
Investigators found nine empty magazines capable of holding 15 rounds each at the crime scene, while the gunman carried additional ammunition in his backpack. Officials said they could not assert with certainty whether the large number of magazines found at the scene and at the gunman’s home had been legally purchased.
The shooting comes as the German government is drafting a new law that would place tougher checks on firearm owners in the country. Despite relatively strict gun laws, Germany has a high per capita ratio of legally purchased firearms.
While mass killings are rare, there have been a number of high-profile incidents in recent years that raised questions over loopholes in safety checks, including a racially motivated attack in which nine people in two hookah bars were killed in February 2020. The attacker in that case had also been able to purchase his firearms legally, even though a subsequent investigation found evidence of a severe psychotic illness.
Authorities said the Hamburg gunman first started shooting outside the Jehovah’s Witness hall, injuring a woman who managed to flee in a car.
Gregor Miesbach told German television news agency NonstopNews that he heard over 25 shots and saw a person enter the building through a window, before opening fire inside.
A nearby resident, Lara Bauch, said she heard four rounds of gunfire. Within each round, shots were fired “at intervals of 20 seconds to a minute,” she told German news agency DPA.
Police found several people dead and others with gunshot wounds when they got to the building 9:09 p.m. local time — five minutes after the first emergency calls, Hamburg police said Friday.
After arriving at the hall, police heard one last gunshot from within the building and found a body when they followed the sound. Authorities suggested that their arrival forced the gunman to retreat and prevented further harm.
Footage from the scene initially led to suspicions that there may have been two shooters, prompting a large-scale manhunt in and around Hamburg, but authorities later said they believed the gunman acted alone.
Maham Javaid, Amar Nadhir and Kate Brady contributed to this report.