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America’s fascination with guns is practically unique in the world; we grew up with TV and movies about police and cowboys and heroes who were all carrying guns and shooting them regularly. These images seem to have created a lasting impression, because many millions still delight in shooting guns, either at shooting ranges or while hunting. But what the movies and TV programs didn’t show was that anyone shooting guns on a regular basis most likely spent the last few decades of their lives deaf, or struggling with significant hearing problems.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a real phenomenon, and accounts for a large proportion of hearing disabilities in our society. Noise-induced hearing loss is caused by 2 forms of noise – transient sounds at high volumes (e.g. gunfire or explosions), and sustained high noise levels (e.g. working around heavy machinery)

The loudness of sounds is measured in decibels; total silence is zero decibels, a whisper is 15 decibels, and a typical conversation is 50 to 60 decibels. The logarithmic nature of the decibels scale is challenging for many people. 60 decibels is twice as loud as 50, and 70 is four times as loud as decibels. Permanent loss of hearing due to noise-induced hearing loss may arise from prolonged exposure to noises over 90 decibels in just a few weeks. Damage can also happen in a much shorter time (minutes) from exposure to much louder noise levels, for instance the 120 decibels you experience around close to a jet engine or rock concert. Gunshots have a decibel level of 140.

One matter that hearing professionals and gun aficionados agree about is that no one should be shooting a gun lacking some kind of ear protection. What kind of ear protection is most effective will depend to some extent on where you plan to shoot.

For those who usually fire guns at shooting ranges, the best ear protection is the over-the-ear “muff” headphones, as these keep the gunfire sounds from hitting not only your inner ears, but the cochlear bones behind them. The muff can be easily combined with foam ear plugs for added protection. Many range shooters will choose in-the-ear foam plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of 30 or more for use with their muffs. On the high end of the price range you will also find electronic noise-cancelling headphones designed especially for shooters, which are expensive but which will offer the maximum levels of protection. Electronic noise-cancelling headphones offer the added benefit of enabling you to hear normal-volume conversations while blocking out the transient gunshots.

If you are a shooter, talk to your hearing care professional and ask them what style of hearing protection they suggest. They will probably have some stern warnings for you; listen to it if you value your hearing.