Editor's note: A story on Sundays front page about gun seizures at Raleigh-Durham International Airport incorrectly said that a new state law, expanding the public places where people with concealed-handgun permits can take their weapons, is now in effect. The new law takes effect Oct. 1.
The transportation security officer at Raleigh-Durham International Airport looked up from her X-ray monitor and asked Tim McCullen what was in his briefcase.
I said, Oh gosh, did I leave my knife in it? recalls McCullen, a Beaufort businessman. She said, It doesnt look like a knife. I said, Oh jeez, did I leave my gun in it?
Yes. McCullen had come to RDU on Feb. 14 packing a .45 Taurus revolver loaded with .410 shotgun shells, a formidable weapon marketed as The Judge. He says he meant to leave it at home.
The checkpoint screener summoned airport police. McCullen missed his flight.
More and more gun owners this year are trying to board airliners with weapons tucked in their pockets and carry-on bags, the Transportation Security Administration says. TSA screeners at airport checkpoints across the country seized 894 guns, most of them loaded, during the first six months of 2013 30 percent more than in the same period in 2012.
RDU passengers have surrendered 16 handguns at the TSA checkpoints so far in 2013. The most recent was a loaded .45 pistol taken Monday from a 30-year-old Fort Bragg soldier. If this pace keeps up, TSA will seize more guns at RDU in 2013 than in the previous two years combined; 11 guns were confiscated in 2011 and 11 again in 2012.
The TSA tries to discourage carrying weapons in luggage with civil fines that can reach as high as $7,500 for a loaded gun. Last year, the agency assessed $1.8 million in penalties for firearms seized at checkpoints. Several RDU passengers said the TSA mentioned a fine of $3,000 and agreed to accept $1,500 if it were paid quickly. One traveler said TSA told him he would not have to pay anything.
A judge decides later whether to destroy the gun or return it to the owner. Law enforcement officials say the guns usually are not returned.
The applicable criminal laws vary from state to state. In North Carolina, airport violators usually are charged with illegally carrying a concealed weapon, a misdemeanor punishable by 30 days of community service. But guilty verdicts appear to be rare.
Checking 47 RDU cases since July 2011 involving illegal guns, knives and brass knuckles all handled in Wake County courts The News & Observer found 25 charges dismissed, one prayer for judgment and no guilty verdicts. Records for a few cases could not be found; the others were pending.
Travelers just forgot
Many gun-toting travelers have permits to carry their weapons. Sometimes, they argue that this makes it OK to fly with firearms in their purses and backpacks.
But most of the time, they acknowledge that their concealed-weapon permits do not overrule federal laws that have banned firearms on airliners for decades since long before TSA began screening air travelers in 2002. They tell screeners and airport police they had intended to leave their guns at home and had not checked their bags thoroughly.
Everybody should know not to go on a plane with a gun, said Steele Myers, interim chief of the RDU Police. Some people are forgetful, or theyre thinking that a concealed handgun permit gives them authority to do things they cant.
Ed Nicely of Whispering Pines owns a gun shop in Vass. He was chagrined when the TSA screener at RDU found a .22 caliber over-and-under derringer in his carry-on bag Jan. 14.
A man had given it to him at a Charlotte gun show two months earlier, he says. He had forgotten about it. He overlooked it that morning when he packed his bag in the dark, to keep from waking my wife, for a gun show in Las Vegas.
Me being a gun dealer, I know the laws, said Nicely, 55. I just didnt see it in my bag. I was so amazed it was there. It was a total accident. It was stupid, yes.
RDU officers gave Nicely a concealed-weapon citation, and they let him go in time to catch his flight. His misdemeanor charge was dismissed in March. He paid a TSA fine but did not want to say how much it was.
McCullen bought his .45 Judge a couple of years ago for self-protection. He had removed a knife, as well as his laptop, from his briefcase before he left for the airport that morning. He thought he had left the gun at home, too.
It just slipped my mind, said McCullen, now 49.
The TSA officer said, Look, its bad, but its not that bad, McCullen said.
The RDU police officers warned him to expect a heavy fine from TSA, but they sought to reassure him, too.
They said, Look, youre going to get a ticket from us, and when it goes to court, were just going to drop it, McCullen said.
Now, McCullen is negotiating with TSA for a reduced fine. He expects to see his Wake County weapons charge dismissed as soon as he can take the judge a TSA release form showing that he paid his fine.
Airport charges make up a tiny share of the states concealed weapons cases. Statewide court statistics show that 3,253 people were charged with carrying a concealed gun in North Carolina in 2012, but only 854, or 26 percent of that number, were convicted on charges filed in 2012 or previous years.
Wake Countys conviction rate was 18 percent, significantly less than the state average. Authorities in Durham County filed fewer concealed gun charges than those in Wake but they won more guilty verdicts, with a conviction rate of 42 percent. Separate figures for airport weapons are not available.
Colon Willoughby, the Wake County district attorney, said prosecutors consider each airport gun case separately. He did not know whether there have been any guilty verdicts.
In most of them that we have seen, the general consensus was that this was something inadvertent, that people were not realizing they had a firearm in their bag, Willoughby said. I know a number of those have been dismissed.
Michael A. Lang of Concord, 27, is an Air Force veteran and gun collector who carries a .380 Ruger LCP for self-protection.
Its very small, about the size of your palm, an easily concealable firearm, Lang said. In case I ever had to use it as a last resort, the likelihood of hitting somebody and it going through them and hitting somebody else was pretty slight. Its a safer weapon, not as strong as a 9 mm.
About 365,000 North Carolinians have permits, issued by their local sheriffs, to carry concealed handguns.
Lang said he was concerned about legislative proposals to restrict gun rights, but he spoke on the same day that the North Carolina legislature passed a law expanding the public places where people with concealed-handgun permits can take their weapons.
Starting Oct. 1, it will be legal to take those guns into restaurants and bars that serve alcohol, to parades and funerals and if the guns are kept inside closed compartments in locked cars onto school grounds and college campuses.
Langs truck is fitted with a center-console safe for his guns. When he travels by air and wants to take a firearm, he declares it and packs it, unloaded, in a locked box in his checked luggage all according to TSA rules.
Lang says he didnt mean to violate the carry-on rule on Oct. 8, when the TSA scanner at RDU detected the Ruger, loaded, inside his backpack.
That day, it was just an oversight, Lang said. I didnt realize it was in the bag.
The TSA resolved his case without levying a fine, he said. A Wake judge gave him a prayer for judgment, which means the charge eventually will be dismissed if the defendant stays out of trouble. Lang paid court costs and his lawyers $500 fee.
Judges decide what happens to the seized weapons. Lang and Nicely did not get their guns back.
An armed society
TSA officials wont speculate on reasons behind the rise in airport gun seizures. More than 4.6 million outbound passengers passed through RDU checkpoints last year.
Overall, passengers can feel assured that when these items are brought to security checkpoints, our officers are finding them and stopping them from being brought on board an aircraft, TSA spokesman Jonathan Allen said.
Willoughby, the Wake County prosecutor, worries that some people have become careless about guns.
Weve become such an armed society that people actually arent thinking about the fact that theyre carrying weapons with them, Willoughby said. Thats a little bit sobering, to think that we are so accustomed to carrying a firearm with us that we often dont think about it or realize that we have it.
News researcher Teresa Leonard contributed to this report.