CHICAGO (AP) — When the city's gang war intensified last spring, shootings became so frequent they sometimes seemed like a ghastly game of tennis, with each senseless attack followed by a vengeful response.
The furious rate of the killing drew national attention and even invited comparisons between Chicago and some of the world's war zones.
But a closer look shows something else: The pace of homicides and shootings has slowed considerably as police step up their presence and residents challenge gang members for control of the streets. In at least one of the city's most notoriously dangerous neighborhoods, homicides have actually fallen.
"People are taking a stand, that we're not going to stand for it," said Lisa Williams, a member of a South Side block-watch group where residents installed their own surveillance cameras.
Back in March, the violence killed 52 people — more than twice as many as died in the previous March. For the first three months of the year, the number of deaths shot up by 60 percent, raising fears that authorities were losing control of some gang-dominated areas.
Police quickly put more officers on patrol and began an intelligence-gathering "audit" that helped them identify rival gangs. Residents took action, too, forming neighborhood watches and staring down passing gang members from outside homes.
Chicago still has a major problem with gangs and gun violence — something President Barack Obama acknowledged about his adopted hometown as recently as last week's presidential debate.
But the increase in killings has declined somewhat — to 25 percent above last year. And two recent months had fewer slayings than in 2011. Police have also noticed gangs inflicting more non-lethal "leg shots" in apparent recognition that fatal attacks bring more pressure.
The city is trying other measures as well, including demolishing dozens of abandoned buildings believed to be gang hangouts, revoking licenses from liquor stores believed to be magnets for gang activity and signing a controversial $1 million contract with Ceasefire, an anti-violence group that uses convicted felons to mediate gang conflicts.
No one is suggesting that Chicago has found a solution to its gang crisis, and no one rules out another tragic spike in the killings. In the coming days, the city is bound to reach another grim milestone when the number of homicides for 2012 surpasses 433, the total for all of last year.
But even after accounting for this year's spike in deaths, the number of slayings is still less than half the level of the 1990s, when 900 homicides a year was not uncommon. In more recent years, the total had leveled off around 450.
Still, Chicago has never achieved the same steep decline in homicides as other major cities. So far this year, Chicago has recorded about 100 more homicides than New York and about 200 more than Los Angeles.
City officials blame the bloodshed on changes in gang affiliations, including the splintering of established groups and the emergence of new rivalries. Other observers pointed to the unusually warm weather. It was the warmest March in Chicago in 140 years, and more people were outside mingling in every neighborhood.
Deadly shootouts continued throughout the spring and summer, with children and innocent bystanders sometimes caught in the crossfire. Yet only once more — in August — did homicides see a considerable jump.