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, N.C., businessman. "She said, 'It doesn't look like a knife.' I said, 'Oh jeez, did I leave my gun in it?'"
McCullen had gone to the airport 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 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.
The TSA tries to discourage carrying weapons in luggage by imposing 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.
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.
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 Raleigh-Durham airport cases since July 2011 involving illegal guns, knives and brass knuckles - all handled in Wake County, North Carolina courts - found 25 charges dismissed, one prayer for judgment and no guilty verdicts. A prayer for judgment means charges will be dismissed if the accused stays out of trouble.
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.
Ed Nicely of Whispering Pines owns a gun shop in Vass. He was chagrined when the TSA screener at the Raleigh-Durham airport 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 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 didn't see it in my bag. I was so amazed it was there. It was a total accident. It was stupid, yes."
Raleigh-Durham airport 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-caliber revolver 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.
Now, McCullen is negotiating with TSA for a reduced fine.
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.
TSA officials won't speculate on reasons behind the rise in airport gun seizures. The agency spreads the word about what's allowed and what's not at its website (www.tsa.gov) and on a smartphone app. It publishes photos and news about confiscated weapons on a blog and a Twitter feed.
The Transportation Security Administration seizes weapons and other banned items found in passengers' pockets and carry-on bags at airport checkpoints. Water bottles, scissors and other minor articles are usually thrown away.
Airport police are summoned when explosives, guns, brass knuckles or other weapons are involved. At Raleigh-Durham International Airport, the passenger usually is charged with carrying a concealed weapon, a misdemeanor. Even if you have a concealed-handgun permit, it is illegal to take a gun on board a plane.
The TSA levies fines of $250 to $11,000 for weapons, explosives or disabling or flammable liquids found at checkpoints, on the concourse or on board aircraft.
* Loaded firearms: $3,000-$7,500
* Unloaded firearms: $1,500-$3,000
* Dynamite, grenades, other explosives: $6,000-$11,000
* Axes, machetes, switchblades, brass knuckles: $250-$1,500
* Travelers may carry guns in their checked bags, unloaded and stored in locked, hard-sided containers. Guns must be declared at the airline ticket counter. Violations involving firearms in checked bags carry fines of $500 to $2,000.
(Reach Raleigh News and Observer reporter Bruce Siceloff at firstname.lastname@example.org. News researcher Teresa Leonard contributed to this report.)