Bounty hunters with a license to kill are glorified on television every week. The reality is uglier and more terrifying than most of us imagine. In Phoenix, a group of heavily armed bounty hunters, wearing ski-masks and body armor, sledgehammered their way through the front door of a private residence, tied up a mother, and held her and her three children at gunpoint. As the thugs broke into the room where Chris Foote and Tina Wright were sleeping, they were met with gunfire from Foote’s 9 mm pistol. The invaders laid down a fusillade of rifle fire, killing the couple.

The bounty hunters were looking, so they say, for a man who had skipped out on a $25,000 bond in California. They got the wrong house. It’s a simple mistake. It could happen to anyone. People in Arizona are naturally outraged, and reformers are calling for laws licensing and regulating bounty hunters. It seems virtually anyone can become a bounty hunter, even convicted felons. One of the suspects in the case, Michael Sanders, has been implicated in several robberies. In 1993, he was arrested on a weapons charge when an earlier bounty case resulted in a shooting death. He was also arrested after he invaded a home and threatened a man with a chemical spray. In that case, too, Sanders had picked the wrong house. Charged with criminal trespass and aggravated assault, he was never prosecuted.

What has given Michael Sanders impunity? According to the Arizona Republic (whose excellent reporting is the source of my information), Sanders is believed to be an informant for at least five law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the BATF. With that kind of support, he had a right to feel cocky. Even when he made mistakes or violated the law, his friends in high places could always find someone else to take the fall.

But weeding out felons who can’t read the numbers on a mailbox will not make us any safer. As usual, the reformers miss the point. Suppose the thugs had gone to the right house and killed the right man. Whatever crime he committed (police officials will only say it was nonviolent), the “jumper” was not under a death sentence. Why should anyone, bounty hunter or cop, have the right to take a citizen’s house by storm, even if the citizen is dealing drugs or leading a religious cult or sawing off shotguns?

The right of a bounty hunter to break and enter homes or cross state lines without extradition papers is one of the many gifts of the Supreme Court. In an 1873 case (Taylor v. Taintor), the Court ruled that laws against illegal search and seizure do not apply to bounty hunters. Apparently, they no longer apply to the FBI or the BATF, the federal agencies allegedly served by Michael Sanders.

Conservatives, who like to think of themselves as tough on crime, have usually made fun of ACLU liberals for their obsession with criminals’ rights. A key provision of the Constitution, however, was the Fourth Amendment, prohibiting illegal search and seizure. This amendment was included in the Bill of Rights because of American resentment against the British government’s attempt to enforce such laws as the Stamp Act and the Cider Act. With nothing more than a general writ, officers of the crown had invaded shops and homes looking for contraband merchandise. A leading Boston patriot, Mercy Otis Warren, called for an amendment to save Americans from “the insolence of any petty revenue officer to enter our houses, search, insult, and seize at pleasure.”

In the tradition of Anglo-American law, a man’s home is his castle. Once upon a time, government agents could not enter without permission, except in cases of major felonies. Tax bills, library fines, speeding tickets, debts, or contraband substances (like drugs or illegal weapons) did not justify a home invasion.

A creditor had to lurk outside the house, hoping to catch the debtor unaware. He could not hire heavily armed thugs and police informants to murder him in his sleep. In those days, a home invader was likely to get himself shot. Chris Foote, in fact, did manage to wound two of his attackers, but they were wearing body armor, and he was only shooting a 9 mm.

Foote’s father said he was happy that his son tried to defend himself, commenting: “I think everyone should have a gun.” He’s right, of course. Everyone should own a gun, to defend his family not just from the felons who would rob and kill them but also from the DEA, FBI, and BATF agents who so often make regrettable mistakes. Chris Foote’s only mistake was in owning a 9 mm. He should have had an assault rifle.