Former NJ Rep. William J. Hughes dies at 87

Author of machine gun ban, advocate of Jersey coastline served 10 terms

Close-up of Rep. William J. Hughes, D-N.J. on Oct. 18, 1993. (Photo by Chris Martin/CQ Roll Call)

William J. Hughes, a 10-term congressman from New Jersey who authored a ban on machine guns and who was a fierce advocate for protecting the New Jersey coast before becoming a diplomat, died Wednesday at age 87.

Harvey Kesselman, the president of Stockton University, which is home to the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy, announced the death in a letter to the university’s community on Thursday.

“Bill Hughes was the epitome of what a public servant ought to be,” Kesselman wrote. “He exuded a sense of civility with respect to everything he did in life, and he was unwaveringly committed to exhibiting that noble conduct to those with whom he came in contact.”

Rep. William J. Hughes, D-N.J. with wife Nancy drinking wine. (Photo by CQ Roll Call)
Rep. William J. Hughes, D-N.J. with wife Nancy drinking wine. (Photo by CQ Roll Call)

Hughes was a South Jersey native, born in Salem and a longtime resident of Ocean City, where he and his late wife Nancy were married for more than 60 years and raised four children, according to his biography on the Stockton website. Before he was elected to Congress in 1974, the Democrat was an attorney and worked for 10 years as first assistant prosecutor in Cape May County.

His namesake amendment to the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act banned civilian ownership of machine guns, legislation passed by a Democratic House and Republican Senate and signed by President Ronald Reagan. Its passage helped set the stage for subsequent gun control efforts, like the 1994 assault weapons ban — and earned Hughes the ire of groups like the National Rifle Association. 

In Washington, Hughes made a mark fighting to keep beaches and oceans protected from pollution and to increase New Jersey’s tourism opportunities. He wrote bills that forced industrial dumpers out of oceans, banned ocean dumping of sewage sludge and worked to combat ocean incineration of toxic wastes, the Stockton biography said.

After choosing not to seek re-election in 1994, he served as ambassador to Panama from 1995 to 1998. 

Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez said in a statement Hughes leaves a  legacy of fighting for what he believed in.

“He fought for what he believed was right, and the accomplishments which bear his imprint — from the Hughes Amendment banning fully automatic weapons, to landmark legislation protecting our oceans from polluters — are testament to what can be accomplished through hard work, civility, compassion and putting progress before politics,” Menendez said.

John Froonjian, the interim executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy, said Hughes was a special type of lawmaker exemplified by the way he treated people.

“He treated everyone regardless of party with courtesy and respect, and his gentlemanly approach helped improve many lives,” Froonjian wrote in a statement. “It is no wonder President Bill Clinton relied on Ambassador Hughes’ diplomatic skills to prepare a smooth transfer of the Panama Canal to Panamanian control.”

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