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America’s affinity for guns is practically unique across the globe; we were raised with movies and TV about police and cowboys and heroes who were all sporting guns and shooting them all the time. Regular exposure to these images is among myriad of reasons that there are so many present-day American gun owners who greatly enjoy shooting them at firing ranges or on hunts. The piece of information not fully conveyed to these many gun owners is that the individuals firing guns on television and in movies most likely wound up deaf, or struggling with serious hearing disabilities.

Guns are loud, and noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a very real concern, among the most frequent causes of hearing problems in America. NIHL can be caused by 2 forms of noise – transient sounds at high volumes (for example explosions or gunfire), and sustained high noise levels (for example working around heavy machinery)

The volume or loudness level of sounds is measured in decibels, with zero decibels corresponding to the sound of total silence, 40 decibels in a library setting, and 60 decibels being the level of a typical conversation. Note that the decibel scale is a log scale. A value of 60 is twice as loud as 50, and 70 is four times as loud as decibels. Prolonged exposure to sounds exceeding 90 decibels (for example a lawn mower) can cause hearing loss in just a few weeks. Ear damage can also occur in a much shorter time (minutes) from exposure to higher decibel noise levels, such as the 120 decibels you experience around a rock concert or near a jet engine. Gunshots reach 140 decibels.

No matter how they might feel about firearms and guns, there is one topic on which gun aficionados and hearing experts agree – no one should be firing guns without wearing ear protection. The question of which kind of hearing protection you should purchase will depend on where you do most of your shooting.

With regard to outdoor or indoor shooting ranges, an over-the-ear, “muff” type headphone is favored. The muff-type headphone can protect your inner ear and also the cochlear bones from the gunfire sounds. Numerous shooters supplement the ear muffs by also using in-the-ear foam plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating of 30 or higher. On the top end of the price range you can also find electronic noise-cancelling headphones engineered specifically for shooters, which are pricy but which will offer the highest possible levels of protection. These headphones block out the gun sounds while enabling you to hear normal-volume conversations.

So if you enjoy shooting guns, before you next go to the shooting range, talk to a hearing care professional about ear protection. And always bear in mind, hearing protection won’t do you any good, at home, inside your backpack, or around your neck. You need to use it at all times.