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Another massacre, another chance for political shouting

A search and rescue vehicle is seen parked

A search and rescue vehicle is seen parked at the entrance to Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon on Oct. 2, 2015. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Josh Edelson

The mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, has sparked a predictable cycle of calls for more gun restrictions from liberals -- including President Barack Obama -- and charges of politicizing the tragedy from conservatives.

It is a perennial and counterproductive debate. But anti- and pro-gun factions are hardly the only ones playing politics with the massacre at Umpqua Community College, where a gunman shot nine people and wounded another nine before killing himself.

On the gun issue itself, advocates can argue forever that to call for gun control in the wake of a massacre is not "politics" but an appropriate response on both an emotional and a commonsense level. After Columbine and Sandy Hook, we already know that the shock of such tragedies does not create national momentum for restrictive legislation -- not because of a faceless evil "gun lobby," but because millions of ordinary Americans feel strongly about gun rights.

We need more sensible discussion on gun regulation. But endorsing Australia-style measures that involve gun removal and drastic restrictions on ownership does little to advance the discussion, especially when the effects of the measures are disputed. Nor does it help when liberals show overt cultural antipathy to gun ownership.

Meanwhile, some on the right put their own spin on Roseburg -- such as the claim that the mainstream media deliberately downplay the "politically incorrect" racial demographics of crime. A website called The Conservative Treehouse ran a blogpost claiming that a photo of gunman Chris Mercer, who is mixed-race, was "whitened" by CNN. No link to a CNN clip was provided, and the site did not respond to my request for evidence of the photo-altering.

Even more widespread has been the theme of the shooting as evidence of persecution of Christians. Initial accounts claimed that Mercer asked people about their religion and shot those who said they were Christians. (Far from downplaying this angle, the mainstream media gave it plenty of attention, including a story in The Washington Post.) #IAmChristian became a Twitter hashtag, and was endorsed by GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson.

But the claim that Mercer targeted Christians is disputed by new reports. While he asked people about their faith, the dead -- according to Patheos, a website focusing on religion -- included an agnostic, a secular Jew and a self-identified pagan. While Mercer's social media posts were critical of organized religion, they apparently show no anti-Christian obsession.

Then there's the gender spin. Early on, a hospital that took in some of the wounded tweeted that the victims were women, referring only to its patients. Feminist journalist Sarah Kendzior took to Twitter, where she has more than 40,000 followers, to assert that "all of the victims of the Oregon shooting were young women," suggesting that this was an Elliott Rodger-style misogynist rampage. But, actually, five of the nine dead are men.

Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor quoted experts who said that mass shootings are caused by traditional masculinity. At the other end of the spectrum, conservative Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulos argued that societal attempts to suppress the aggressive masculine spirit warp the psyches of some young men and cause them to lash out. In fact, cross-cultural comparisons show little support for either theory: Some societies with much more traditional gender norms (Japan) and far more negative attitudes toward traditional manhood (Sweden) have very low levels of violence.

One unfortunate certainty is that sooner or later we will have another mass shooting. Perhaps the next time, we can make an effort to focus on the victims and their lives, not use their deaths for political theater.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.