Frank Lautenberg obituary: US Senator who called for gun control and took on the tobacco industry

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The Independent Online

Frank Lautenberg, who died on 3 June aged 89, was the oldest member of the US Senate and the last Second World War veteran serving there. The multi-millionaire New Jersey Democrat, the son of Polish and Russian Jewish immigrants, who had been called out of retirement for a second tour of duty in Congress, announced in February that he would not seek a sixth term.

"He improved the lives of countless Americans with his commitment to our nation's health and safety," President Obama said. Lautenberg was a staunch gun-control advocate and critic of the tobacco industry, and fought for greater spending on transportation and the environment. He wrote the laws banning smoking on domestic airlines and setting the national minimum drinking age of 21.

Lautenberg returned to the Senate in April despite being in poor health for several votes on gun legislation favoured by Obama. He voted for enhanced background checks for gun purchases and to reinstate a ban on assault-style weapons. Both measures failed. "Common sense tells you that there are more than enough dangerous weapons on the streets," he said.

He had retired in 2000 after 18 years in the Senate, but New Jersey Democrats brought him out of retirement in 2002 as an 11th-hour replacement for Robert Torricelli, his long-standing rival, who had abandoned his re-election campaign five weeks before Election Day.

Republicans went to court to prevent what they called the Democratic Party's ballot "switcheroo." When that failed, they attacked Lautenberg as a relic ill-suited for dangerous times. But he surged to victory, and when Democrats regained a Senate majority in 2007 he returned to the powerful Appropriations Committee, on which he had served for 15 years.

"People don't give a darn about my age," Lautenberg said. "They know I'm vigorous. They know I've got plenty of energy." A former smoker, he attacked tobacco companies' advertising. During a 1989 debate over smoking, when tobacco-state lawmakers asked what would become of tobacco farmers, he said, "Grow soybeans or something." He was one of two sponsors of the 1989 law that banned smoking on domestic flights of less than six hours, one of several anti-smoking laws he championed and one that paved the way for more restrictions.

He also worked to secure hundreds of millions of dollars for mass transit projects, defended the Amtrak federal train system and pushed for money for the Superfund toxic-waste clean-up programme.