atricia Boardman is a 38-year-old schoolteacher from Kokomo, Ind., who took a sightseeing trip to Washington last summer with her husband Jim, her 10-year-old daughter Rebecca and her 8-year-old son James. It was not a visit they'll soon forget -- or soon repeat.

Patricia spent more than 12 hours in jail for carrying a gun without a license and for failing to register a firearm. She was a garden-variety tourist with no criminal record who was simply trying to see the Capitol. Instead, Pat Boardman spent the night locked up with hookers, junkies and thieves.

A D.C. Superior Court judge released her the next day, and she was not convicted of a crime. But her vacation was ruined, and her arrest record is no longer clean. None of it should have happened -- and none of it ever has to happen again if the system will recognize a chink in its midst and take a simple step to fill it.

Pat Boardman's ordeal began at the rotunda door of the Capitol, at 3:40 p.m. on June 27. She and her family had just arrived in town, and rather than look for a hotel room right away, they decided to visit the Capitol first.

The Boardmans had brought along a fully loaded .25-caliber pistol "for personal protection, because of all the stories you hear about things happening to people," Pat says. "We felt kind of funny, but if anything happened to the kids . . . ."

The Boardmans had not obtained a license for the gun because they "hadn't had time," according to Pat. She says she had no idea that D.C. law forbids carrying an unregistered pistol. So she blithely marched up to the Capitol Police officer standing guard at the metal-detector machine and announced that she had a gun in her purse.

"Being somewhat unsophisticated, I told the woman police officer I had a gun and asked her if I could check it. I thought it would be no problem. It never occurred to me that I could be in serious trouble," says Pat.

But she was immediately placed under arrest, searched, handcuffed and taken downstairs to a police office to give a statement. Meanwhile, her husband and children had begun the Capitol tour, figuring that Mom would catch up any second. Not only couldn't she do that, but she had no idea how to contact them once she was jailed, since the family hadn't chosen a place to stay.

"I was treated like a common criminal," says Pat. "I understand, but it felt terrible, humiliating."

By the next morning, Jim Boardman had hired an attorney, Heather Shaner, and Shaner had gotten Pat released. "We forced ourselves to see one of the Smithsonian buildings for the kids, and then we went home," says Pat.

"I'm a very patriotic, sentimental person. I wanted to take the kids and show them the things in Washington that have so much meaning for me . . . .But we'll need time before we could think about going back."

Let's be clear about one thing: the Boardmans did not need to bring a gun to Washington, D.C.

I think they were the victims of a thirdhand slander about this city that has been going the rounds for years -- a slander that would have tourists believe they can't walk the streets here without being prepared to defend life and limb.

In fact, those of us who live here know that the Capitol is a perfectly safe place to go, and 3:40 p.m. is a perfectly safe time to go there. Most mugging and shooting victims in this city are local people known to the people who mug or shoot them. The victims are seldom tourists gazing at the sights.

Nor is there any getting around the fact that Pat Boardman broke the law. There are good reasons why it's illegal to carry an unregistered gun in this city. The best reason is that more than 200 people were shot dead by guns here in 1984, and we're on the way to breaking that record in 1985. If we didn't have a gun registration law here, those numbers would almost certainly be larger.

Still, the system fumbled the Boardman case. It took a gnat and hit it with a baseball bat. It played everything by the book in a situation that screamed out for special handling.

According to federal law enforcement officials, arrests of gun-toting tourists are made about four times a week, usually at the White House and the Capitol. Some of these people are indeed dangerous fruitcakes who should be taken out of circulation. But most are citizens like Pat Boardman, who come here on vacation and don't bother to bone up on D.C. law before they hit the interstates.

What's needed in cases like this is a special kind of probation. It's easy to identify gun-law violators like Pat Boardman who don't have a criminal record. So why give them one?

Rather than jailing people who don't have a malicious, criminal bone in their bodies, the authorities should simply call the authorities in the home town of the person who's carrying the gun. Arrange for a series of visits to a judge, a magistrate, a parole officer, whatever you like.

That way, the law keeps an eye on gun carriers. But they don't have to spend a night behind bars in a rat-infested "D.C. Hilton" -- and they don't have an arrest record forever, either.