WASHINGTON — Last October, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor didn't just get an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association. He got the coveted 100, a rare perfect score: A+.
So it rocked Capitol Hill last week when Cantor, the second-ranking House Republican, said in a CNN interview that he's open to stronger background checks, signaling a bipartisan focus that could change the way Americans buy guns.
Several House Republicans -- some who identify as gun-toting hunters and sportsmen -- followed suit. Two even joined House Democrats introducing legislation to strengthen penalties against "straw purchasers" who buy firearms for convicted criminals. And according to The Associated Press, two GOP senators are exploring ways to expand background checks at private gun shows.
But if Cantor's words have swayed Chattanooga-area lawmakers, they aren't admitting it for public consumption.
As guns and ammunition fly off shelves in the South and the nation, President Barack Obama and others continue their quest to curb gun access after the mass killings at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in December.
But several Tennessee and Georgia Republicans indicated Friday they're in lockstep with Second Amendment-loving constituents.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press sent area federal lawmakers detailed queries about universal background checks, straw purchasers and paying states to share mental-health information with federal databases.
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais epitomized the collective response. Through a spokesman, the Jasper Republican said he "continues to be a staunch defender of the Second Amendment."
Also in a statement, U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, of Ranger, Ga., said "the political agenda disregards the reality that violent criminals and murderers don't live by the laws of our land."
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, of Ooltewah, did not respond to the questions.
Congress was not in session Friday, so it fell to aides to field inquiries. Their answers reflected a palpable sensitivity toward the gun control debate. Several prominent Republicans who normally sound off on issues of the day said they don't comment on hypothetical legislative scenarios. Others sidestepped or were otherwise careful in their statements.
All the lawmakers mentioned in this article have benefited from NRA endorsements and thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the powerful gun lobby.
U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said through a spokeswoman that he "has always been a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, and that he will carefully consider any bill brought before the Senate."
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., did not address a question of whether he supports "universal background checks."
That phrase means closing what Democrats call "the gun-show loophole" -- the ability to purchase firearms at private gun shows without background checks.
Current law requires background checks for everyone who tries to buy guns from federally licensed dealers. But only six states require universal background checks on all firearm sales at gun shows, according to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama aren't among those states.
"I'm very interested in learning about the effectiveness of the background check system, and look forward to the Judiciary Committee hearings on that issue," Alexander said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., called the issues "complex" and said Corker "believes most Americans want to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and those who are seriously mentally ill."
"The relevant Senate committees are looking at these issues, and he'll evaluate any reasonable proposals they report out," the statement said.
The issue has hit close to home. Jesse Mathews, the convicted killer of Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin, obtained his murder weapon from an unlicensed dealer at a Scenic City gun show. The transaction occurred even though Mathews was an escaped felon wanted for armed robbery in Colorado.
Chris Carroll covers federal politics for the Times Free Press. A Chattanooga native, he went to Red Bank High School and graduated with honors from East Tennessee State University. Chris investigated violent crime, municipal government and hospitals before taking the political beat. For tornado coverage, he and Pam Sohn won a first-place Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors deadline reporting award. In 2010, Chris won the Golden Press Card Award of Merit and another deadline reporting ...