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America’s passion for guns is almost unique in the world; we grew up with movies and television programs about police and cowboys and heroes who were all carrying guns and shooting them regularly. The impression from these images was definitely powerful, because the US continues to have millions of gun owners who fire them often, at firing ranges or while hunting. The downside not communicated to these millions of gun owners is that the individuals shooting guns on television and in movies quite possibly wound up deaf, or struggling with serious hearing problems.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) accounts for a large proportion of hearing disabilities in our society. Noise-induced hearing loss is caused by two forms of noise – sustained high noise levels (e.g.heavy machinery sounds), and transient sounds at high volumes (e.g. gunfire or explosions)

Noise levels are measured on the decibel scale. Zero decibels is complete silence. A library is around 40 decibels. A typical conversation measures around 50 to 60 decibels. The decibel scale is logarithmic. 50 decibels is twice as loud as 40, and 60 is four times as loud as 40 decibels. Sustained exposure to sounds above 90 decibels can result in permanent, NIHL within just a couple of weeks. Damage can also happen much faster – inside a few minutes – from exposure to much louder sound levels, such as the 120 decibels you experience around a rock concert or near a jet engine. Gunshots have a decibel volume level of 140; that’s 128 times louder than normal conversation.

One matter that most gun owners and hearing specialists concur on is that nobody should be shooting a gun without some form of ear protection. Picking the best suited ear protection depends upon the form of shooting you intend to do.

With regard to outdoor or indoor firing ranges, a “muff” type headphone that fits over the ear is preferred. The muff-style headphone is able to protect your inner ear as well as the cochlear bones from the sounds of gunfire. Quite a few shooters who care about their hearing combine over-the-ear ear muffs with in-the-ear foam ear plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating of 30 or higher, to achieve even more protection. At the high end of the price range there are also electronic noise-cancelling headphones engineered especially for shooters, which are expensive but which will offer the maximum levels of protection. Electronic noise-cancelling headphones offer the additional benefit of enabling you to hear normal conversations while blocking out the transient sounds of gunfire.

If you enjoy shooting guns, before you next go to the range, talk to a hearing care expert about hearing protection. And remember, ear protection doesn’t do you any good, at home, inside your bag, or hanging around your neck. You have to use it at all times.