Matthew McConaughey reflects on being in his hometown Uvalde in the days after the school shooting

Actor Matthew McConaughey holds a picture of 10-year-old school shooting victim Alithia Ramirez as he speaks to reporters about the recent mass shooting at an elementary school in his hometown of Uvalde, Texas during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 7, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Matthew McConaughey talks about comforting the families of Uvalde school shooting victims in the days after the tragedy. He later went to Washington, D.C., to tell their stories. (Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Matthew McConaughey will never forget being in Uvalde, Tex., in the days after the May 24 school shooting.

The actor was named one of People magazine's 2022 People of the Year for his efforts in his childhood hometown after the mass tragedy, and how he took the stories of those school children to Washington, D.C., to make a plea for better gun laws. Soon after, Congress passed its first major gun-safety legislation in nearly 30 years.

The Dallas Buyers Club star, 53, said it was "40 seconds after I found out the news" that his wife, Camila Alves, said, "'We've got to go down there.' And I was like, 'Yeah, we do.'"

Initially, they left their three children — Levi, 14, Vida, 12, and Livingston, 9 — at home in Austin.

"We knew it was going to be raw and that we were going into the belly of the beast" as 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School were killed by an 18-year-old gunman, said the Oscar winner. "We met with a congressman [Rep. Tony Gonzales] who represents Uvalde. We went to the Fairplex where the town was mourning and gathering. We met families who had just found out — and this is over a day later — that it was confirmed one of their children had [died]. DNA tests had to be done because some of the bodies were so mutilated."

McConaughey, who considered running for governor of Texas last year, said they "didn't know where or how we would be needed most," but soon realized it was with the families. The grieving parents and family members were receptive to them being there, and Alves connected with some of the mothers. He revealed one family invited them into the chapel at the funeral home during a private viewing. "This is sacred time, sacred ground," he said. "I remember walking into the chapel and feeling like [I was] between a mama bear and her cubs in the wild; I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I shouldn't be in the eye line or in the space between them,' but it was the only way in…"

He said they realized, "OK, we got more to do here." They came back with their children as well as his brother Rooster and his wife. He said "100 percent of the families" they talked to during those first days "wanted to embrace. They didn't want a handshake. They would quickly bypass the open hand and just come in [for a hug]." He said their role was showing up, meeting their gaze and hugging them or holding them for as long as "they wanted to hold on to you. Some hugs went on for minutes."

Of deciding to bring his kids and taking them to a viewing, McConaughey said, "Here's why [we did]: The family asked if we wanted to bring our kids. My thought was … are you ready to look life in the eye and understand that death is part of it? Well, I don't want my children seeing that in a movie or a comic book. I asked each one of them if they wanted to, and they said yes. We tried to prepare them. I don't think it's too early to expose them in this most natural way."

He continued, "As a father, what do I hope they get out of it? Respect, more respect for their own life. More thanks and gratitude for the life they've got, for being able to go to school and come home safe from school another day. This is not how it always is for everybody forever… They asked many questions, and we talked about it. And even in their youth, they got it. Now, mind you, we didn't give them day after day of that, we gave them a day and a half. After that [I said] me and Mom have to go into town. Y'all stay out here at the ranch and play around."

McConaughey said the experience led him to write his op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman calling for "gun responsibility," coming from the position of being a gun owner. He and Alves then traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak with lawmakers. He also held an emotional press conference at the White House, where he told the stories of the young victims.

"I had to remind myself many times, 'Matthew, you ain't got to be an expert on fricking gun control. You don't have to sound like a lawyer who knows all the points and constitutional rights,'" The Lincoln Lawyer star said. "Trust me, I studied — I did as much of a crash course as I could. But I was like, 'No, remember you're going there as a human, as a dad, as an American, as somebody who's got kids that go to school and would hope this wouldn't happen anymore but [knows] it will again … someone who's going, 'Come on, this can't become status quo. Bulls***.'"

As for using "gun responsibility" versus "gun control," he said, "It became very clear to me early on, as a lover of words, that to the right, so-called staunch Second Amendmenters — these are my people in the South, I know them well — 'control' is a dirty word. It's like a mandate. Whoa, whoa, whoa, don't you tell me what to do, I got my right to bear arms. So that word, out of the gate, is shutting about 80 percent of their ears." Whereas "responsibility" is "to give the person the power of choice. It's forward-moving. It's affirmative. I'm responsible. Don't tell me I ain't responsible."

At the end of the day, he said he just knows, "We have to do better for our kids." He knows he doesn't have a "ta-da" way to make people see the light, but "I think there's incremental changes, there's breakthroughs. I do believe that with time, inevitably we can improve, we can ascend, we can evolve as people."

McConaughey spent his young childhood in Uvalde. His mom, Kay, taught kindergarten less than a mile from Robb Elementary. Last year, he considered a run for Texas governor, against incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who went on to win. Early polls showed McConaughey was favored, despite little being known about his political beliefs, but he announced that he decided against it in hopes he could do more to help people outside of political office.