U.S. law enforcement officers are being killed at an alarming rate, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday, adding that options are being explored to address the violence including seeking new gun control laws.

Before meeting with state and local police chiefs and representatives of federal law enforcement agencies, Holder said 48 officers have died during the first three months of 2011, a 17 percent increase over 2010. Of those, 23 were killed by gunfire, a 53 percent jump.

Last year “really marked the deadliest year for law enforcement in nearly two decades,” Holder said, noting there were 162 officers killed in 2010. “That’s obviously very worrisome. This year we’re unfortunately on track to exceed the numbers we saw last year.”

He said he has ordered Justice Department officials around the country to meet with law enforcement authorities to discuss ways to address the issue, like federal programs that provide grants to buy bulletproof vests.

That new effort comes just days after President Barack Obama sought to open a new debate on preventing gun violence like the shooting rampage in Arizona in January that killed six people and gravely wounded Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

At the same time, Obama noted that most gun owners “are responsible citizens” and he called on both sides of the gun control debate to participate in the discussions rather than use the issue to engage in political grandstanding.