The brutal killing of Chicago high schooler Derrion Albert left countless Americans stunned. In an attempt at damage control—in an immediate and long-term sense—White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder and former Chicago Schools superintendent and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Chicago to confront the constellation of issues that led youth violence to surge in the city in recent years.

Holder’s remarks, to students and parents in the neighborhood where 16-year-old Albert was beaten to death, were sorrowful, yet filled with policy prescriptions:

We’re here today to continue a public safety conversation that the Obama Administration started on day one. It has included a law enforcement summit I hosted at the Department of Justice, a White House gang prevention conference, and countless episodes of collaboration with local law enforcement. But it’s not a conversation where we want to do all the talking. We want to listen to educators, parents, and experts in the field, and find out the best ideas for addressing this urgent problem. We’re not interested in just scratching the surface or focusing on generalities, and as we delve into this problem we’re not going to protect any sacred cows. We’re here to learn firsthand what’s happening on our streets so we can devise effective solutions.

Our responses to this issue in the past have been fragmented. The federal government does one thing, states do another, and localities do a third. We need a comprehensive, coordinated approach to address youth violence, one that encompasses the latest research and the freshest approaches.

The speech, perhaps remarkably, did not once mention the word “gun”. This may be appropriate (Albert was killed with cruelty, sticks and stones) but undercuts somewhat Holder’s promise not to protect “sacred cows”—in this case, gun rights enumerated in the Constitution's Second Amendment.

Before the speech, however, Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence—longtime advocates against gun ownership and for stringent restrictions on gun use—challenged Holder to go further:

The youth violence problem in Chicago is a gun violence problem. Illegal guns are being trafficked into Chicago and then used to kill school-aged children.

The Obama Administration has done almost nothing to address this so far. Three years ago, in the wake of the Nickel Mines shooting of five Amish school girls, George W. Bush managed to hold a 'Conference on School Safety' without even saying the word 'gun,''' said Helmke.

That Holder followed suit is a disappointing half-measure in a time when bold, even extreme actions are needed. It's understandable that Second Amendment protections are a heated legal and cultural debate that the busy Obama administration probably doesn't want to join at such a critical moment for domestic and foreign policy. Adding fuel to this fire, however is the ongoing push from New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to crack down on private gun shows where loopholes and lax policing allow gun enthusiasts—as well as criminals and the mentally ill—to skirt standard background checks and buy weapons that end up promoting street violence:

[E]ven though we have the nation's toughest law against illegal possession of a loaded handgun, drug dealers and criminals continue to obtain guns from inter-state traffickers.

According to ATF, 89% of guns used in crimes in New York City last year originated out of state. Many cities around the country find themselves in the same situation. It is clear that we can't solve this problem by working only within our state. We need leadership from Washington to close loopholes that criminals exploit, and we need stronger enforcement of the laws already on the books.

There is certainly something to Bloomberg’s argument; New York’s crime rates are significantly lower per capita than Chicago’s. It would have been nice to see the Justice Department—making progress in other areas, like Civil Rights, important to black America—acknowledge that.


Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.