America has a strong history of gun usage, based to some degree on the TV and movies we knew as a kids, which showed us pictures of policemen and cowboys firing guns pretty much all the time. Regular exposure to these visuals is among many reasons that you will find so many American gun owners who very much enjoy shooting them at firing ranges or on hunts. The part of the story that you never see in the movies or on television is just what happens to these shooters in their later years. Many wind up nearly deaf or with severe hearing disabilities.

Guns are noisy, and noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, is a very real concern, among the most common causes of hearing losses in the US. Noise-induced hearing loss can be caused by two types of noise – sustained high noise levels (such as working around heavy machinery), and transient sounds at high volumes (such as explosions or gunfire).

The volume of sounds is measured in decibels; complete silence is zero decibels, breathing is 10 decibels, and normal conversation is 60 decibels. The decibel scale is logarithmic. 50 decibels is twice as loud as 40, and 60 is four times as loud as 40. Continuous exposure to noises above 90 decibels can lead to irreversible, NIHL within just a couple weeks. Comparable ear damage can occur much faster at higher decibel levels. It takes only a few minutes of sounds at 120 decibels, for example from a jet engine or rock concert, to lead to permanent ear damage. Gunshots come in at 140 decibels.

Irrespective of how they may feel about guns, there is one subject on which gun enthusiasts and hearing experts concur – no one should be shooting guns without using hearing protection. What kind of ear protection is most effective will depend to some extent on where you plan to shoot.

If you normally shoot guns at ranges, the most-recommended hearing protection is the over-the-ear “muff” headphones, because they keep the sound of gunfire from hitting not only your inner ears, but the cochlear bones behind them. Many shooters who care about their hearing partner over-the-ear ear muffs with in-the-ear foam ear plugs with a Noise Reduction Rating of 30 or higher, to attain even more protection. For increased protection, choose headphones with electronic noise-cancelling technology. They are the highest priced option, but do offer the maximum level of protection. These headphones block the gunfire sounds while enabling you to hear normal conversations.

Regardless of whether you’re a novice or experienced range shooter, ask your hearing care specialist about the latest in hearing protection options, and never go to the shooting range without protection. And bear in mind, hearing protection doesn’t do you any good, at your house, inside your backpack, or hanging around your neck. You need to use it at all times.