BILLINGS — According to a new study by Stacker composed of data from the CDC, Montana was ranked number eight in the nation for gun-related deaths from 2017-2021.
That ranking comes as no surprise to Billings native Mykala Davis, who lost her boyfriend in 2020 to gun violence.
“The day I found out he was shot, I had literally just gotten up and I was doing my makeup and getting ready for work. I was getting ready to walk out of my front door, and his best friend had called me, and I answered the phone because I had already missed one of his other friends calling me," Davis said on Friday. "I was like, well, two people are calling me that know him. What’s going on? I was like, maybe he’s missing, or maybe they’re looking for him, I don’t know."
But sadly, that wasn't the case.
According to a social media post from Billings police, 21-year-old Preston Gregor was shot on July 7, 2020 in the 600 block of Samuel Court in the Billings Heights.
He suffered a single gunshot wound to the chest and was rushed to the hospital, where he later died.
“His best friend calls me, and he’s like, ‘Did you hear about him?’ and I was like, ‘No, what’s going on?’ and he’s like, ‘He’s dead,’" Davis said. "And I’m just like, ‘I’m sorry,’ and that’s all I could say. I was in complete shock.”
As far as Davis knows, the investigation is ongoing.
"Last I knew, they were still investigating, and that was the last I heard from it,” Davis said.
Davis said she misses Gregor's kindness.
“He’s probably one of the kindest people you could ever meet. And he always made you feel comfortable," Davis said. "He never left anyone out, and he would always go out of his way to help the people he cared about.”
And Davis said this journey hasn't been easy.
“It is one of the most difficult things you could ever do. Some days it feels like you just can’t heal from it, you’re never going to get past it," Davis said. "And then other days it’s like, okay I can do this. It’s been this long now. And you just go through it day by day."
The two met in elementary school and were friends for 10 years before they started dating.
“We met when I was in fourth grade, he was in fifth grade. So that was like ’08, ’09, so it was quite a while. I had a crush on him in fourth grade and we were in the same wrestling club. And I was like, oh, it’s just a schoolgirl crush. You know, nothing super serious," Davis said. "And then like high school, that’s when I was like, ‘Okay, I really like him,’ and like I already had feelings for him but the timing never worked out. So we just stayed as friends. And then in 2020 is when we finally decided to go from friends to more than friends.”
The two only dated for a few months before Gregor's death in July.
“It was definitely fun. We had our moments where we’d fight, more as friends though not really as a couple," Davis said. "But we were very supportive of each other and just there. We were best friends.”
But now, Davis is left to navigate life without her best friend—something others across Montana can relate to.
Moms Demand Action is a nationwide group that works to bring down gun-related deaths through education and advocacy. One of the volunteers for the Billings chapter, Kiely Lammers, told MTN News on Friday that this problem needs attention.
“This is an epidemic," Lammers said. "It’s something that, yes we have a big problem in Montana, and we have a big problem in America as a whole."
Lammers said she has been volunteering with the group since 2016.
“I was a teacher before I had kids. And after Sandy Hook is really what pushed me over the edge. Like, I got to do something, imagining my own students and trying to protect them," Lammers said. "And then also just having a couple of babies, that made me really want to do something."
Lammers said while gun-related homicide rates are alarming, the real driver of the ranking is Montana's high suicide rate.
"The big bulk of gun violence in Montana is suicide completed by a firearm. So 83% of our gun deaths in Montana are suicide," Lammers said. “So right now, we have about 20 deaths per 100,000 people in Montana. And that is extremely high. So to give you a reference, the US’s rate is 13 deaths per 100,000. So if we think about that, 83% of those are suicide."
According to the study from Stacker, gun-related homicides in Montana from 2017-2021 were responsible for 128 deaths, while gun-related suicides were responsible for 3,359 deaths.
And Lammers believes education is one of the first steps toward a safer state.
"A big piece of our work is education on suicide prevention. And that is responsible gun storage. When our kids and those that we love who might be a danger to themselves, when they don’t have easy access to lethal means, a gun is the most lethal means, then we know that those suicide rates go down," Lammers said. "So we want to teach people, it’s fine to own guns, it’s fine to have guns in your home. But they need to be appropriately locked up. They need to have the ammunition stored separately, your gun empty in a separate, locked container. Or with a cable lock or something like that."
Education—something Lammers said parents and children both benefit from.
“It really is on parents, right? And adults. It’s fine if your teenagers hunt and they own a gun. But it really is our responsibility to protect them from that," Lammers said. "To lock that gun up. Give them permission to go when they have a reason to go. We don’t want them to have access every day after school if they’ve had a bad day. So Be Smart (an education program from Moms Demand Action) is really just teaching parents to lock up their guns. Be a good example of a person who is a gun owner. Know the risks of suicide, and then ask the people around you.”
Lammers said changing legislation is also a big part of it.
"I just hope that people will start considering that there is an option to have guns, and also support safe storage and reasonable, safe legislation. Like passing a background check," Lammers said. "We can do both. It’s not an either-or."
But that's something that can be difficult in a state like Montana, which has a strong culture of gun ownership.
“Yes, we have a problem in Montana. And it’s tricky because of our culture. We’ve all grown up and been brought up to believe that we all are familiar with guns, we use guns regularly to hunt," Lammers said. "So it’s hard for us maybe as a state to admit, you know what, we’ve got a problem. We don’t know the best, we aren’t following the rules that our grandparents, our great-grandparents, were following safe storage rules and background check rules and that sort of thing. We are slowly eroding those with the laws that keep passing at the state.”
Lammers believes there are a few bills that are doing both harm and good for the cause.
"We absolutely are active in legislation as well, because we know that makes a difference. So for instance, right now in the legislation, there are two bills. One is a constitutional carry bill. So last session in 2021, they passed a bill called HB 102. And that made it so anyone can carry a gun without having passed a background check, and without having any training at all. So that really made things dangerous. And so it’s no wonder that our numbers are increasing,” Lammers said. "SB 423, it’s a bill that would allow people to temporarily hold a family member’s gun. Let’s say, if they are at risk of hurting themselves or others. And it would take away their liability. So that’s a really positive bill because we want people to feel comfortable and feel safe, and not feel like they can’t help a family member and they can’t hold those guns.”
Ultimately, Lammers believes everyone needs to be on the same page.
“When we do have more guns in more places, the other risk that we have to our community is stealing guns. And oftentimes guns will be stolen and then used in a crime. So that’s just another reason for people to lock up their guns appropriately," Lammers said. "And I know some people, it makes them nervous. They have their guns for protection potentially. And that’s understandable. So we need to find a middle ground where you can have your gun, feel like you can use it quickly, but also have it secure."
And volunteers like Lammers have one uniform goal: eliminating gun violence in any way they can.
“I think all of us want to decrease gun violence. And I think we just disagree how that can happen," Lammers said. "But with Moms Demand Action, we know, because everything we do we base on CDC statistics. And we know that when we put in laws that put some boundaries, require permits, background checks, that sort of thing. We know that death rates go down.”
But until those numbers can be brought down, people like Mykala Davis are left only with memories and mementos of their lost loved ones.
“Preston had bought me this shirt before he died. And I actually didn’t get it until after he died. His best friend brought it to me. And it was weird because it was almost like he was coming back for a moment,” Davis said while holding up the shirt. “This cross, he gave me this cross in April of 2020. The night he gave it to me, he told me he’s never taken it off before. And so the day he died, I was like, I’m never going to take this off.”
To learn more about Moms Demand Action, click here.
To learn more about the study from Stacker, click here.
“I just know that Preston is much happier where he is now," Davis said. "And he’s rooting for all of us down here.”