WASHINGTON - Let the debate begin.
Fulfilling earlier promises, Tennessee and Georgia Republicans on Thursday voted to bring expansive gun control legislation to the Senate floor for debate next week.
But the votes should not be confused as a call for tighter gun control. Instead, they represent a desire to fight senators who favor tougher restrictions.
"For me to be unwilling to debate and defend Second Amendment rights would be like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being willing to sing," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
But a cadre of young conservatives and a few red-state Democrats went even further, voting to block consideration of any gun bill inspired by the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre.
The final tally was 68-31, with the majority favoring an argument.
"I don't understand why any senator wouldn't want to debate these issues, but in the end, I will not support any legislation that violates our Second Amendment rights," U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said in a statement.
U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, both Georgia Republicans, appear to be in the same boat. Both favored what's formally known as a motion to proceed, but neither announced support for the actual bills.
Only Alexander faces re-election in 2014. His vote indicates enough confidence to shrug off any threats from the National Rifle Association, which promised to punish senators who supported a debate.
Perhaps to cover all his bases, however, the former Tennessee governor issued a statement Thursday that said he'll vote against a pivotal amendment that would expand background checks.
In the statement, he noted a previous "A" rating from the NRA.
"The hard work starts now," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who brought the legislation to the floor for debate.
Hoping to bring pressure on Congress to act on gun control, supporters of new restrictions have been demonstrating in Washington. They have erected a mock graveyard with thousands of crosses on the National Mall, symbolizing victims of gun violence.
The Senate's firearms bill would subject nearly all gun buyers to background checks, add muscle to federal laws barring illicit firearm sales and provide slightly more money for school safety measures.
The Associated Press contributed to this story
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at email@example.com or 423-280-2025.