A masked man with a rifle briefly took 17 people hostage at a movie theater in western Germany on Thursday, before police shot and killed him.
The bizarre attack in the town of Viernheim put the nation, which is largely unaccustomed to the kind of mass shootings experienced in the U.S., on edge. Some 30 police commandos rushed to the town of 33,000 people, 40 miles south of the financial capital of Frankfurt.
No one besides the gunman was hurt during the two-hour standoff, police said. He only fired four blanks from the rifle, according to local news reports. Germany’s strict gun laws make it extremely difficult for anyone, even hunters or members of a gun club, to obtain a permit to have a weapon.
“The assailant was moving about in the cinema complex and gave off a confused appearance,” Hesse state interior minister Peter Beuth said in a short speech to the state assembly after the episode concluded shortly after 5 p.m. local time. “We cannot yet confirm that his gun was loaded with ammunition.”
“The special commandos were sent in to take care of the situation and overwhelm the assailant. There were hostages within range of the assailant, and that is why the special commandos acted to stop the assailant,” Beuth said.. “That’s why he is dead.”
Police said they do not believe the incident was a terrorist attack. Germany’s western neighbors, France and Belgium, have both been hit by deadly Islamist terrorist attacks in the last eight months.
Already tough gun control laws in Germany were tightened after school shootings in 2002 in Erfurt and 2009 in Winnenden left 31 victims dead. The new regulations helped cut the number of firearm killings in half, to about 50 a year, according to experts.
Germany is the only country in the world where anyone younger than 25 has to pass a psychiatric exam before he or she is allowed to apply for a gun license. Those applying have to wait a year, pass rigorous tests and have a legitimate reason for owning a gun.
Christian Pfeiffer, a leading expert at the Criminological Research Institute, or KFN, in Lower Saxony, said in an interview that all indications are pointing to a mentally disturbed perpetrator who may have wanted to be killed by police in a shootout.
“He evidently wasn’t planning to kill any of the people in the theater, because that would have happened,” said Pfeiffer, a former state justice minister in Lower Saxony. “I would assume that the assailant was an extremely disturbed individual who went in there with the intention of dying in a spectacular fashion.”
2:22 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout.
8:48 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with staff reporting.
8:20 a.m.: This post was updated with reports of the suspect’s death.
This post was originally published at 7:48 a.m.