Karen Heller: Lautenberg's powerful public-interest legacy

Sen. Frank Lautenberg in 1999, pushing gun-control legislation - just part of his consistent public-interest agenda.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg in 1999, pushing gun-control legislation - just part of his consistent public-interest agenda. (DENNIS COOK / AP, file)
Posted: June 06, 2013

Frank Lautenberg may not have appeared to be a giant of the Senate, but when you review the arc of his legislation and the consistency of his agenda, the five-term senator left a powerful legacy.

"Frank Lautenberg was a hero in public health," said Jay Winsten, associate dean of the Harvard School of Public Health. "If there was a Nobel Prize in public health, he would have deserved it for his aggressive fights in the public interest and the hundreds of thousands of lives that have been saved."

He was the primary architect of legislation that changed the way we conduct our daily lives, including the regulation of tobacco, alcohol, and firearms.

In 1984, as a freshman in the minority party, the New Jersey Democrat wrote legislation that helped raise the national minimum drinking age to 21 by tying federal highway funding to its adoption. The move, extremely unpopular at the time, replaced a network of random drinking ages in neighboring states that induced minors to cross borders to purchase alcohol.

In a decade, fatal crashes involving young drivers plummeted almost 60 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. By 2008, in excess of 25,000 lives were saved due to the measure, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. While the drinking-age law may be among the most routinely violated, the seminal difference is that young people are no longer getting in cars as often when drunk.

Lautenberg further reduced traffic fatalities by lowering the legal definition of drunken driving in 1998, from 0.10 percent blood-alcohol content to 0.08, again tying a state's adoption to federal highway appropriations.

"I pick issues that affect people personally," said Lautenberg, who died Monday at age 89. Some things taken for granted that compromised the health of Americans - exposure to cigarette smoke, easier access to alcohol and firearms - notably improved thanks to the senator's initiatives.

Once a two-pack-a-day smoker, Lautenberg introduced and passed a series of measures in the late 1980s that first banned cigarettes on two-hour flights and then all flights in the continental United States. At the time, he said, "It's a victory for all people who say they want to determine what they want to do with their health." Lautenberg later worked to eliminate smoking in all federal buildings and any federally funded locations that served children.

"He was very smart. It takes really hard work to take momentum and shape it into legislation," said Ann Klassen, professor and chair of Drexel's department of community health and prevention. "Look at the power of his career and the enormous number of things that we're better off having because of his work."

Lautenberg pushed for a 1997 amendment that prohibited anyone convicted of domestic abuse from gun ownership. After announcing his retirement in February, he pledged, in his remaining time in the Senate, "to pass new gun safety laws." In April, Lautenberg returned to the chamber in a wheelchair to vote for a firearms-safety package, including an amendment he cowrote prohibiting magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

After its defeat, Lautenberg noted, "It is outrageous that the Senate can't rise to the occasion and summon the courage to ban high-capacity magazines and protect our loved ones from mass murderers." It was among the final votes Lautenberg cast.

"He came to Washington to do good for people, and fought for the average person to solve their problems," said Harvard's Winsten. "It is not simply that Frank Lautenberg did one thing or two or three. He never let up."


Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @kheller. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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