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Matthew McConaughey's gun speech did what Biden's didn't

The actor pleading for lawmakers to reform gun laws after the Uvalde school shooting hit home in a way that no major politician has been able to do. 

On Tuesday, Matthew McConaughey, the Academy Award-winning actor, made hands-down the most powerful case I have ever heard for gun reform in the modern era. His 20-minute speech from the podium of the James S. Brady briefing room in the White House — named after a high-profile victim of gun violence — was not that of just another Hollywood A-lister leveraging their celebrity to draw attention to a particular pet issue; this was different. This was raw. It was visceral. And it hit home. I think McConaughey’s speech connected with the American audience on the issue of guns in a way no major politician has ever been able to do before. 

Unlike President Joe Biden’s recent prime-time address, which came off lofty, partisan and preachy (one analyst called it “Democratic Party white noise”), McConaughey’s speech felt more accessible and balanced.

Smartly, McConaughey didn’t come at the issue of guns through the divisive rhetoric that has failed to produce any meaningful change in federal legislation in decade

Biden very likely failed to move the needle of public opinion among the gun rights faithful, but McConaughey may have been able to. As MSNBC’s Katy Tur noted, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News all stayed with McConaughey’s speech in its entirety — a reflection of its gripping nature. 

At times, his speech was hard to listen to, particularly as he profiled the hopes and dreams of some of the children lost in the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting — aspirations that will now never be realized. As McConaughey read from his prepared remarks, he spoke to the nation not as a slick Hollywood actor but as a father, a man of God, a gun owner, a Texan — a native son of Uvalde — and, most importantly, as an American who is sick of watching these same scenes of mass murder play out over and over while a divided Washington fails to act.

Smartly, McConaughey didn’t come at the issue of guns through the divisive rhetoric that has failed to produce any meaningful change in federal legislation in decades; instead, he approached the issue through the lens of responsible gun ownership. “Responsible gun owners are fed up with the Second Amendment being abused and hijacked by some deranged individuals,” McConaughey said. “Regulations are not a step back; they’re a step forward for a civil society and — and the Second Amendment.”

With his familiar Texas drawl and passionate appeal to elected officials to rise above the politics, McConaughey, who flirted with running for governor of Texas until late last year, gave voice to what the majority of Americans believe: that it’s possible to protect the Second Amendment while promoting more responsible gun laws. He seems to understand that gun legislation is not a matter of “either / or;” rather, as he put it on Tuesday, it’s about finding a “middle ground, the place where most of us Americans live anyway, especially on this issue.” It’s something that some leaders of both major political parties seem not to be able to grasp.

As a gun owner myself, I found myself nodding in agreement when McConaughey ticked off a series of reforms that he believes most even-keeled gun-owning Americans can get behind: universal background checks, raising the minimum age to 21 for purchasing an AR-15 style weapon, waiting periods and red-flag laws. 

He challenged politicians in both parties to rise to this historic occasion — alluding to the promising ongoing talks between Senate Democrats and Republicans on new firearms legislation, urging them to “start by making laws that save innocent lives and don’t infringe on our Second Amendment rights.”

I first heard McConaughey’s address on the radio, and it was only later that I caught the video. As I listened to his live remarks over the air, I happened to be making my way through the afternoon traffic in the Minneapolis suburb where I live, en route to pick up my two youngest children, ages 6 and 8, from school. By the time I reached the school parking lot, McConaughey was closing his speech by reading the first names of all the children whose lives violently ended on May 24, and my eyes were filled with tears. Robb Elementary in Uvalde could have been my very own children’s school. It could have been any school. And unfortunately, if lawmakers don’t act, someday it will be another school.

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As a parent, McConaughey gave voice to the fear and anguish that every parent feels every time news of one of these school shootings breaks. While we thank God that it wasn’t our own kids’ school, we know that an unspeakable horror has just begun for some parents — one from which they will never fully recover.

Shortly after McConaughey concluded his remarks, I made my way to the front door of the school, where my own children were waiting for me outside. Like McConaughey, who said he hugged his children “a bit tighter and longer than the night before” after learning of the massacre in his hometown, I too felt the need to embrace my children a bit longer than I did the day before. As I looked around at their school, it was so clear to me that Robb Elementary, where 19 children and two teachers were killed, could have been as much there as it could have been anywhere. 

With his Southern charm and expressive manner of speaking — no doubt influenced by his many years as an actor — McConaughey reminded me of two other very potent communicators who rose to the highest levels in political life: Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. And although McConaughey may have closed the door on his bid for governor of Texas for now, it may just be that this issue and this moment is the one that could have us all listening a lot more to what he has to say in the months and years to come.