America’s fascination with guns is practically unique in the world; we were raised with television programs and movies about police and cowboys and heroic characters who were all sporting guns and shooting them constantly. The impression from these images must have been powerful, because this country continues to have millions of gun owners who fire them on a regular basis, while hunting or at firing ranges. The downside not thoroughly communicated to these millions of gun owners is that the people shooting guns on TV and in motion pictures quite possibly ended up deaf, or suffering from serious hearing problems.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) accounts for a sizeable proportion of hearing problems in our society. Noise-induced hearing loss can be caused by 2 forms of noise – sustained high noise levels (for example working around heavy machinery), and transient sounds at high volumes (for example gunfire or explosions)

The volume or loudness level of sounds is measured in decibels – complete silence is zero decibels, a whisper is 15 decibels, and normal conversation is 50 to 60 decibels. 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. Long term loss of hearing resulting from NIHL can arise from extended exposure to sounds exceeding 90 decibels in just a couple weeks. Comparable damage can occur considerably faster at higher noise levels. It takes only minutes of noises at 120 decibels, for instance from a jet engine or rock concert, to lead to long-term ear damage.

A typical gunshot has a volume of 140 decibels.

One subject that gun fans and hearing specialists concur on is that no one should be firing a gun lacking some sort of ear protection. What variety of ear protection is best depends to some extent on where you plan to shoot.

If most of your shooting is at outdoor or indoor gun firing ranges, your best option at a reasonable cost is some form of over-the-ear “muff” style headphones that inhibit transient sounds not just from getting to the inner ear but also from getting to the cochlear bones behind the ear. Some sport shooters who care about their hearing combine such ear muffs with in-the-ear foam ear plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating of 30 or higher, to ensure even more protection. For better protection, opt for headphones with electronic noise-cancelling technology. They are the most expensive choice, but also offer the highest level of protection. Electronic noise-cancelling headphones have the added benefit of enabling you to hear normal conversations while cancelling out the transient gunshots.

Regardless of whether you’re a new or seasoned range shooter, ask a hearing care professional about the newest ear protection products, and under no circumstances go to the shooting range without them. Then adhere to the advice they give, while you can still hear them saying it.