America’s fascination with guns is almost unique across the globe; we were raised with movies and television programs about police and cowboys and heroic characters who were all sporting guns and firing them regularly. Regular encounters with these images is one of many reasons that you will find so many American gun owners who greatly enjoy firing them on hunts or at firing ranges. But what the movies and TV programs didn’t show was that anyone firing guns often most likely spent the final years of their lives deaf, or troubled with serious hearing problems.
Loss of hearing from noise exposure, named noise-induced hearing loss or NIHL, is one of the most widespread types of hearing disability. NIHL is caused by two forms of noise – transient sounds at high decibels (for example gunfire or explosions), and sustained high noise levels (for example heavy machinery sounds)
The volume or loudness level of sounds is measured in decibels; total silence is zero decibels, a library is 40 decibels, and normal conversation is 50 to 60 decibels. Note that the decibel scale is a log scale. A value of 50 is twice as loud as 40, 60 is four times as loud as 40, and 70 is eight times as loud as 40 decibels. Sustained exposure to sounds louder than 90 decibels (for example a motorcycle) can cause hearing loss within weeks. Similar damage can happen much faster at higher noise levels. It only takes minutes of noises at 120 decibels, such as from a rock concert or a jet engine, to induce long lasting hearing damage. Gunshots come in at 140 decibels.
No matter how they might feel about guns, there is one topic on which gun owners and hearing professionals agree – nobody should be firing guns without wearing hearing protection. Choosing the right hearing protection depends on the variety of shooting you intend to do.
If the majority of your shooting is at outdoor or indoor gun firing ranges, the best option at a reasonable price is some kind of over-the-ear “muff” type headphones that block transient noise not only from reaching the inner ear but also from getting to the cochlear bones at the rear of the ear. Many shooters who care about their hearing partner such ear muffs with in-the-ear foam ear plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating of 30 or more, to ensure greater protection. The most effective protection – and unfortunately the most costly – is provided by headphones with electronic noise-cancelling technology. These headphones block the gunfire sounds while enabling you to hear normal conversations.
If you have fun with shooting guns, before your next visit to the firingrange, talk to a hearing care professional about hearing protection. And keep in mind, hearing protection doesn’t do you a bit of good, at home, in your backpack, or hanging around your neck. You have to wear it at all times.