Gabrielle Giffords passed me on a Washington, D.C., sidewalk last week, her husband, Mark, holding her hand, slightly ahead, directing her along. Her haunting grin and distant gaze stuck with me.

So I went online to remind myself about the details of that shooting. Giffords, a former U.S. congresswoman from Arizona, was shot by a deranged man with a Glock 9 mm handgun. Six people died and 12 others were injured in the attack two years ago.

So why are we arguing about “assault” rifles and not “assault” handguns? The shooter had been recognized as mentally ill by college administrators, friends and family, but had gotten no help. His family had taken away his shotgun, but he’d been able to purchase the handgun at a gun shop. He had two 30-shot clips for the handgun. He dropped the gun trying to reload and was tackled by a bystander.

If we base our actions now on that episode two years ago, we would ban a bunch of handguns and large-capacity clips, period. Neither is the right answer.

Yet extending the background check requirement to private gun sales — the single most important thing we can do to deter the bad buys — would not have prohibited the man who shot Giffords and the others from purchasing his handgun. He’d never committed a felony nor been institutionalized for mental illness.

Such is the complexity of these issues. There are, however, things we can do here in Maine to address these problems. At the top of the list, we must acknowledge — and do something about — our failure to care adequately for the mentally ill. And the mentally ill should be separated from their guns. One key to that will be to offer them a chance to regain their guns and gun rights if their mental illnesses are controlled.

A friend suggested an idea I also like: We should create a system that will provide families who think a member is mentally ill a way to receive quick, comprehensive help and remove guns from the home until the weapons can be returned safely.

We also should submit, to the federal background check system, the names of those mentally ill individuals who were prohibited — beginning six years ago — from possessing guns. Immediately.

We need to do more to protect those who are threatened by the terrible problem of domestic violence. People who are served protective orders are supposed to rid themselves of their guns, but the police have no way to assure that this is done.

One reason police fail to collect these guns is that they do not have secure places to store them. I talked about this recently with Leigh Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Court. She has a solution for part of this problem: the Legislature should fund the construction of storage facilities for these weapons.

While extending the background check requirement to all private sales will be inconvenient and unnecessary for many Mainers, it is something we gun owners should be willing to support to stop the sale of guns to the bad guys.

Finally, the Legislature could and should build a lot of goodwill with gun owners, and gain a better chance of enacting new gun restrictions, by repealing the concealed carry law.

Police are trained to assume that everyone they approach is armed. The concealed carry permits waste money and time and are useless in fighting crime and violence. It’s time to focus on the bad guys.

My advice to legislators about this problem includes:

* Respecting the strong and passionate beliefs on both sides of these complex issues.

* Understanding that they are legislating for Maine, not the nation.

* Recognizing and setting aside suggestions that focus on and hinder the good guys but do nothing to restrict the unlawful and damaging actions of the bad guys.

* Picking their way through dozens of ideas to find the ones that actually might reduce crime and violence in our state.

* Finding a way to remove guns from those who are mentally ill without permanently taking away their constitutional right to firearms, while providing the help they need to get well.

* Understanding that most Maine children are more likely to suffer violence, to be harmed or even killed, in their homes, than in their schools, and allocate our effort and resources accordingly.

If legislators can accomplish all these suggestions, then they will have earned the applause that will follow them all the rest of their lives.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or george [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmith

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