Kenneth Collins, who served as Maplewood’s police chief for nearly 15 years, relished “putting away bad guys,” according to his friends and family. But he also used his influence to protect the most vulnerable.

As the first chairman of the gun-control group Citizens for a Safer Minnesota and as president of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, Collins lobbied legislators in the early 1990s to pass a first-in-the-nation law that barred convicted domestic abusers from buying firearms. Until the bill’s passage, only a felony conviction could block a gun purchase; a federal law denying gun purchases to those with domestic violence convictions was modeled on Minnesota’s law.

Collins died Oct. 11 of pneumonia at United Hospital in St. Paul. He was 76.

“He was a very important figure in the national gun violence prevention movement,” said Mary Lewis Grow, who with Howard Orenstein co-founded Citizens for a Safer Minnesota, now called Protect Minnesota.

“This whole focus on keeping firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers started in Minnesota,” Grow said, “and it began with Ken Collins.”

Collins was born in St. Paul. His parents were alcoholics and he occasionally spoke about not having proper shoes or food as a child. Authorities eventually removed Collins and his siblings from the home; some went to foster care, while Collins and one of his brothers went to live with an aunt and uncle, a St. Paul police officer who introduced him to the profession.

Collins graduated from Wilson High School in St. Paul in 1961 and immediately joined the U.S. Navy at age 17. He served as an electrician aboard the submarine USS Proteus, which was stationed in Scotland.

After he completed his service, he returned to Minnesota and married his longtime sweetheart, Margaret Berscheid, in 1965.

Collins was hired by Maplewood police in August 1966 and steadily rose through the ranks, serving as a patrolman, detective and sergeant. “He liked working the night shifts because there was a lot of action,” said his son, Mark, of North St. Paul.

While working as an officer, he took classes at the University of Minnesota and eventually earned his bachelor’s degree.

Collins served as chief of the Maplewood police from August 1982 until he stepped down in 1997. He served as sergeant for another year before retiring from the department in 1998.

As chairman of Citizens for a Safer Minnesota starting in the late 1980s, Collins gave informed testimony about what police officers encounter on domestic violence calls that Grow said helped push legislators to action. His mantra, she said: “The difference between a battered spouse and a dead spouse is a gun in the house.”

Collins lost a primary election bid to be Ramsey County sheriff in 1994, but after retiring from police work he was elected to the Maplewood City Council, serving from 2000 to 2003.

“He always seemed to have the city’s and department’s best interests at heart,” said Maplewood Police Commander Dave Kvam.

Collins was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer eight years ago, but he beat the disease and was cancer-free at the time of his death, his wife said.

Family members said he was a devoted father who coached his children’s hockey teams and served as an assistant Boy Scouts leader. He put family first, Mark Collins said, “because he didn’t have a family growing up.”

Besides his wife and son Mark, Collins is survived by his son Steven, of Andover; daughter Andrea, of Elko New Market; and five grandchildren. Services have been held.