Big bang theory

GREELEY — A quarter of children nationwide shoot guns, and three quarters of those children fire their first shot before age 10.

University of Northern Colorado researchers Deanna Meinke and Donald Finan have one overarching concern with the popular use of firearms among youth: hearing loss.

More than 60 percent of youth shooters in Colorado report never using hearing protection devices when hunting, according to the UNC scientists’ study to be published in the International Journal of Audiology next year. Only about half of youth report using ear protection 100 percent of the time when target shooting.

“Unfortunately, you can only take one unprotected shot, and you can have permanent hearing loss,” Meinke said. “If you shoot guns unprotected, you will lose your hearing for a lifetime.”

Meinke, an audiologist, and Finan, a speech scientist, have teamed with researchers from several institutions, including the University of Northern Colorado, for the past six years in Michigan to measure firearm sound levels. They return annually using increasingly sophisticated technology: The team set up 30 microphones this year to measure sound levels near shooters’ and bystanders’ ears.

The UNC scientists also have measured sound levels from track and field starter pistols that have the potential to damage hearing as well as the effectiveness of ear muffs vs. ear plugs while shooting. They ultimately hope their work could lead to labels that more accurately reflect how a variety of ear protection performs.

Most recently, Meinke and Finan looked at the effects of hearing loss from standing vs. kneeling over a table top while shooting. The results: Shooting over a table can be more destructive to the ear.

“The research helps us have practical information that we can then translate to education and teaching people how to be safe,” Meinke said.