Weeks before a gunman opened fire on his former congregation at a Jehovah’s Witness hall in northern Germany, the authorities got a tip that he “harbored a special rage” toward religious groups, officials said Friday. But when they checked on him, they said, they determined they did not have grounds to seize his weapons.
The gunman killed six people, including a pregnant woman, before turning his weapon on himself as police stormed the building in Hamburg on Thursday in what the authorities called “the worst such mass shooting incident of this dimension” to affect the city. Eight people were wounded, four of them severely.
In keeping with German privacy laws, the police identified the gunman only as Philipp F., a 35-year-old German who, according to the authorities, had been a member of the congregation until a year and a half ago, “but apparently did not leave on good terms,” said Thomas Radszuweit, the head of state security in Hamburg.
Mass shootings are extremely rare in Germany, where regulations limit who can own a weapon, and make training and testing compulsory before a gun can be purchased. Fully automatic weapons are considered “weapons of war” and are illegal.
In January, the authorities responsible for weapons control received a letter saying that Philipp F. “harbored a special rage against members of religious groups, especially the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Mr. Radszuweit said.
Several weeks after receiving the letter, the authorities sent an unannounced team to Philipp F.’s home to inspect whether he was securing his weapons and ammunition in a safe, as required by law, and to speak with him.
They said that he had been open and cooperative and, with the exception of one stray bullet outside the safe, that everything was in order. They gave him a verbal warning.
The law in Germany also limits the authorities’ ability to take steps to remove weapons from an owner who is licensed to possess them. In the case of Philipp F., because the letter was written anonymously and provided no evidence, there was little the authorities could do, officials said.
The German interior minister, Nancy Faeser, traveled to Hamburg on Friday to speak with the police, visit the site and offer her condolences. She also used the opportunity to reiterate the need to tighten gun laws, including a ban on semiautomatic weapons and requiring a psychological assessment for first-time gun owners.
“It hard to put into words what an appalling act happened here,” Ms. Faeser said.
Andy Grote, senator of the interior for the city-state of Hamburg, said, “It is a horrific act.”
Police officers responding to the first emergency calls entered the Jehovah’s Witness hall as they heard shots ringing out from inside, the authorities said at a news conference on Friday. They found injured people on the ground and saw a man with a gun run to an upper floor.
A special unit then arrived and isolated the gunman, an approach that prevented others among the roughly 50 people gathered in the building from being killed, said Matthias Tresp, the chief of special police in Hamburg.
“The immediate action saved the lives of many people,” Mr. Tresp said. Four men and two women were killed in the attack. One of the women was pregnant, and her 7-month-old fetus also died, the authorities said.
The gunman was armed with a semiautomatic handgun, one of the weapons that he was legally allowed to own. The gun was found next to his body, the authorities said.
Nine empty magazines, each capable of holding up to 15 rounds, were found at the scene, along with a backpack filled with 20 more magazines, Mr. Radszuweit said. Another two magazines were found on the gunman’s body. Philipp F. obtained his gun license in 2022 and had legally acquired his weapon, the authorities said.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses, a denomination founded in the United States in the 19th century, has been active in Germany since 1902. They make up a relatively small religious community of about 175,000 adherents in Germany, which is home to nearly 900 dedicated “kingdom halls,” as the group calls its places of worship.
Persecuted by the Nazis and carefully watched by the Communist secret police in the former East Germany, the group struggled for decades to be given equivalent status to Germany’s other religious communities. That was granted beginning in Berlin in 2005. On Friday afternoon, a few flowers had been laid in front of the gray building that housed the hall. The police were still guarding the site, although the forensic teams had largely finished their work.
Residents in the red brick homes across the road, with carefully tended front gardens and hedges, said they mistook the gunshots they heard for fireworks.
Dennis Gehrmann, 41, who works at a bank nearby, said he was worried about one of his friends, who was a member of the congregation and was not answering her phone.
“Hamburg is such a tolerant city,” he said. “It’s so tragic that something like this could happen here.”
Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who previously served as mayor of Hamburg, and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier were among those who offered their condolences in the wake of the shooting on Thursday.
In a statement, the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in Germany said, “The religious community is deeply saddened by the horrific attack on its members in a kingdom hall in Hamburg after a church service.”
The first calls about the shooting were made to the police at 9:15 p.m. Residents in the area, a normally quiet neighborhood in northern Hamburg, said that they had been stunned to hear shots ringing out from the building where the religious community met.
“I starting filming with my phone, and through the zoom, I could determine that someone was shooting,” Gregor Miebach, a student who lives across from the hall, told the German channel N-TV. “There were at least 25 shots that I heard.”
The special police unit that responded happened to be in the area and arrived within minutes, the authorities said, with officers then working their way up through its three floors.
“After the police arrived, there were no shots for a while,” Mr. Miebach said. “After about five minutes, there was one single shot.”
Although rare, shooting rampages have become more frequent in Germany over the past decade. Three years ago, a 43-year-old German posted a racist video and screed on the internet before driving to bars and clubs frequented by young people from Turkish and Kurdish families that have lived in Germany for generations and opening fire, killing nine.
The gunman in that case had also acquired his weapon legally.
A year earlier, a 28-year-old far-right extremist failed in his attempt to storm a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, killing two bystanders instead. He was not allowed to own firearms, but had made his guns using a 3-D printer that the authorities found in his home.
In Germany, hunters, target shooters and people who can prove that they are under threat can apply for a gun license. Both medical and criminal history is taken into account before such licenses are granted.
In December, the German police raided the homes of a network of far-right extremists who the authorities said had plans to overthrow the government. There was no immediate evidence to suggest the far right was involved in the attack on Thursday night.