Actor Matthew McConaughey discusses school safety work during Heartland Summit in Bentonville

Matthew McConaughey, a native of Uvalde, Texas, talks June 7, 2022, about the mass shooting in Uvalde at the White House in Washington. (File Photo/AP/Susan Walsh)

BENTONVILLE -- As he sought to help find ways to enhance school safety, actor Matthew McConaughey was "surprised" by the effectiveness of getting lawmakers of differing opinions together to simply share a meal.

During a panel discussion Wednesday as part of the Heartland Summit in Bentonville, the Uvalde, Texas, native talked about the Greenlights Grant Initiative dedicated to improving school safety after the school shooting in his hometown on May 24, 2022.

McConaughey, a parent, told the audience he found out about the shooting that killed 19 students and two adults after leaving a music recording studio with no wireless reception and "my phone lit up."

"I remember riding my bike by that school" as a child, he said.

The actor and his wife "met with over 36 congressmen and women" afterward trying to arrive at solutions to such massacres.

The most meaningful meeting they had was a meal where Democratic and Republican members of Congress intermingled, he said.

"We broke bread together," McConaughey said. "I was surprised by how novel that was."

Congress members don't get together socially, he found out. They don't have regular conversations with each other outside work.

Eventually, federal grants and loans were created setting aside "billions of dollars for mental health, panic buttons and metal detectors" for schools, he said. Months after that, "the congressman for Uvalde County told me that out of 119 school districts [in his congressional district], 12 had applied and none had been granted."

The 50-page grant application was daunting, he said. There was also reluctance to take federal money, to ask the federal government for anything, he said. The foundation he helped found formed and agreed to provide full grant-writing services for the highest-risk districts, he said.

"I learned things I did not know," McConaughey said. "The wheels of government turn slowly -- and there are people holding a hose to make sure the ground stays muddy and that wheel keeps on spinning."

He also learned how much difference wording makes. "Say 'gun control' and people hear 'control,'" he said. "Say 'gun responsibility' and that's a choice. Just change a word, and more people listened."

"The Right's better branders than the left," he said. "The left could use a better" chief marketing officer, he said.