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America’s fascination with guns is practically unique across the globe; we were raised with television programs and movies about cowboys and police and heroic characters who were all totin’ guns and firing them all the time. The impression from these images was definitely potent, because America still has millions of gun owners who fire them often, while hunting or at shooting ranges. The aspect not fully communicated to these millions of gun owners is that the folks shooting guns on television and in movies most likely ended up deaf, or suffering from severe hearing disabilities.

Loss of hearing from noise exposure, named noise-induced hearing loss or NIHL, is one of the most common types of hearing impairment. NIHL can be caused by 2 forms of noise – sustained high noise levels (e.g.working around heavy machinery), and transient sounds at high volumes (e.g. explosions or gunfire)

The loudness of sounds is measured in decibels; total silence is zero decibels, a library is 40 decibels, and normal conversation is 60 decibels. Note that the decibel scale is a log scale. 60 decibels is twice as loud as 50, and 70 is four times as loud as decibels. Sustained exposure to sounds exceeding 90 decibels (for instance a farm tractor) can cause hearing loss within weeks. Similar hearing damage can happen considerably faster at higher decibel levels. It takes only a couple of minutes of noises at 120 decibels, for example from a jet engine or rock concert, to lead to permanent hearing damage. Gunshots measure 140 decibels; that’s 128 times louder than normal conversation.

One topic that most hearing professionals and gun owners agree about is that no one should be firing a gun without wearing some form of hearing protection. Finding the proper hearing protection depends upon the form of shooting you intend to do.

For those who usually shoot guns at shooting ranges, the recommended ear protection is the over-the-ear “muff” headphones, because they prevent the sound of gunfire from reaching not only your inner ears, but also the cochlear bones behind them. The muff can be paired with foam ear plugs for additional protection. Many shooters will choose in-the-ear foam plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating of 30 or higher for use with their muffs. On the high end of the price range you can also find electronic noise-cancelling headphones developed specifically for shooters, which are pricy but which will ensure the highest levels of protection. These headphones block the gunfire sounds while enabling you to hear normal-volume conversations.

So if you enjoy shooting guns, before you next visit the firingrange, talk to your hearing care professional about ear protection. Then follow the advice they give, while you can still hear them saying it.