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WASHINGTON, Aug 20 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said on Tuesday his administration was in "meaningful" talks with Democrats about gun legislation after the latest mass shootings, but congressional aides downplayed the discussions as low-level and not very productive.
Democrats have accused Trump of reversing course after he initially voiced support for tougher background checks following the latest shootings to rock the United States, so that "sick people don't get guns."
He also suggested the National Rifle Association lobby group might ease its strong opposition to gun restrictions.
Since then, Trump has shifted his approach, however, calling the shooters mentally ill and saying the administration had to look at building more mental institutions.
"These retreats are heartbreaking, particularly for the families of the victims of gun violence," U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said on Twitter. He urged Trump to press Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to permit a Senate vote on a background check bill supported by the House of Representatives.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump declined to say whether he endorsed any of the gun legislation backed by House Democrats. But he said the administration had been engaged in talks with Democrats.
"We are in very meaningful discussions with the Democrats and I think the Republicans are very unified," Trump said. He said Democrats were weaker in their support for gun rights than Republicans and he wanted to protect against gun controls becoming too restrictive.
"We're looking at different things. And I have to tell you that it's a mental problem, and I've said it a hundred times, it's not the gun that pulls the trigger, it's the person that pulls the trigger. These are sick people," Trump said.
Democrats have been demanding action on guns after shooters earlier this month in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, killed 31 people with semi-automatic rifles using high-volume magazines.
The White House held a staff-level meeting with Senate Judiciary Committee staff on Friday, congressional aides said.
House Judiciary Committee staff met with White House aides on Tuesday, focusing mainly on gun bills the panel plans to take up in a meeting scheduled for Sept. 4. The aides said there was no productive discussion about legislative priorities or measures that the White House could support.
Trump suggested on Tuesday he might agree to some changes to improve background checks but did not offer details.
"We have very, very strong background checks right now. But we have, sort of, missing areas, and areas that don't complete the whole circle," Trump said.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said later that "meaningful background checks remain on the table" for the president but that he "has not mentioned supporting universal background checks."
The official said Trump spoke on Tuesday with NRA chief Wayne LaPierre. LaPierre said in a post on Twitter that they "discussed the best ways to prevent these types of tragedies."
The House Judiciary Committee said on Friday it would cut short its summer recess to meet on Sept. 4 to begin considering new gun control legislation.
The panel planned to prepare a series of bills for consideration by the full House, including a high-capacity magazine ban, a measure to prevent people convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from purchasing firearms and a "red flag" bill to deny guns to those deemed to be a danger to themselves and others. (Reporting by Steve Holland, David Alexander and David Morgan; Editing by Peter Cooney, Tom Brown and Sonya Hepinstall)